Box 20: Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin

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It feels appropriate that my return to writing about writing is also a return to a long familiar and beloved series. We’re diving into Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb today — the third of her trilogies about FitzChivalry Farseer.

As always. There will be spoilers — all the spoilers. Possibly for previous trilogies too. If you aren’t caught up on the various Six Duchies trilogies, well… then you have work to do. Get out of here and read some Robin Hobb.

So…

Fool’s Assassin takes place mostly at Withywoods, a charming country estate in the Six Duchies, and now the home of Molly and Fitz in their retirement. The events of the book center around their unexpected child Bee — she is even given alternating POVs with Fitz through most of the book.

This is not a plot driven book. It’s about Bee growing and Fitz handling aging in his own way. It’s about losing people and trying to get used to new people. It’s about expectations and living. Because of that, I’m not going to spend much time recapping here.

Let’s jump into some writing lessons from Fool’s Assassin.

Throughout the Six Duchies books, the background characters are fairly evenly split between men and women. There are male and female assassins, healers, soldiers, magic users, musicians, merchants, and on, and on. It’s done with very little comment.

That’s it really. There are plenty of times where men and women in this book have Western gender-normative roles, in the foreground and in the background. But by having lots of main cast, secondary cast and “extra” female characters who fill various normative and non-normative roles, it alleviates the pressure on the female characters to be entirely representative of the gender.

Lesson #1 : Gender Balance for Extras

Diversity in storytelling isn’t all about creating diverse protagonists. We need diverse backgrounds too. We need women in the room when it’s not a brothel or a group of wives.  Even if the culture you are building is patriarchal, keep in mind that women are still ‘around’ so to speak. It sounds self-evident, but it’s unrealistic when the extras’ demographics are monolithic.

As I mentioned, this book switches between Fitz’s POV, our dear former assassin, and his daughter. Bee is nine years old for most of the book, and she’s an ‘odd’ child. She has a much longer gestation period, she’s born with a high level of consciousness, has prophetic dreams, is able to read and write and draw at a young age. If you’ve read the series, you’ll pick up quickly on what she is, even if poor Fitz hasn’t caught up yet.

Writing children isn’t easy. Writing non-humans or extraordinary humans isn’t easy. Bee’s POV walks the lines of both carefully and with grace. She’s a child, but not exactly an ordinary one. Seeing her through her own eyes and the eyes of her father gives you empathy for the character, and at the same time lets you understand the ‘creepy child’ response she gets from some adults in her life.

Like Fitz, I wasn’t sure what to make of Bee at the beginning, and she grew on me.

Lesson #2: Being Bee

The tight first person of Fitz’s trilogies is consistently a masterclass in perspective. Bee’s perspective is like getting a whole new set of invaluable lectures on the subject. She’s sometimes selfish and naive, frustrated when her own self-evident truths are misunderstood, and both eminently human and quietly alien. 

For as brutal as these books are, a surprising number of characters have made it through six books and into Fool’s Assassin. Aging a character, letting them change and yet be the same, is something that we get multiple examples of in Fool’s Assassin.

Molly has been around peripherally for six books, and by now is an aging woman. Chade, an assassin who was old to begin with,  is now a medical miracle. Kettriken, once princess of a foreign kingdom, then queen of the Six Duchies, and now a dowager queen, has different priorities. Her son, King Dutiful, is a father in his own right.

Lesson #3: Aging Well 

It would be easy to let any of these characters stand still — to not check up on them, to leave the younger generations out and focus exclusively on the happenings and aging of the protagonist. And Hobb doesn’t. They’ve all grown up, grown older, and grown different.

First person. I mentioned the fabulous first person, but we’re going back to it in order to talk about misunderstandings.

This is everything from Fitz’s surprise that Chade is happy when Fitz reaches out telepathically, to his disappointment in Chade’s inability to offer consolation to Fitz on Molly’s death. There’s such nuance to the way Fitz sees Bee and Bee sees Fitz. There are tons of different details in here to look for.

Lesson #4: Misunderstandings between Characters

Human interactions are fraught with misinterpretations, with tiny differences of opinion and memory. Communication is imperfect, even between old friends. Hobb pays attention to her character relationships, and gives rough and irregular edges to their ability to relate, communicate and understand.

That’s four, and normally I’d stop there. But I have a few more thoughts. So…

SUPER SPOILER BONUS ROUNDS

Like really. I’m going to spoil the end of a few books in a moment. Get out of here if you haven’t read Farseer, Tawny Man et all.

So.

Grim dark fantasy is in vogue,  I feel like I’ve seen a lot of people using the brutality of a secondary world to make it ‘realistic’. One problem with relying on that sort of thing, especially in an ongoing series, is the pressure to alway go bigger — to find things worse than death, to make the deaths more horrific, etc..

In the second book of the first trilogy, Fitz dies. Our first person POV is executed. Bloody brutal.

And yet, Hobb consistently succeeds in coming up with worse corners for Fitz to fight his way out of — without yet going back to killing him.

Fool’s Assassin is mostly small events both happy and sad — but I read the book waiting for the other shoe to drop — to really get punched in the gut by more than the melancholy of aging and watching the world change. Knowing it was coming didn’t make it better. There’s a body count at the end, a painful and effective body count, but that isn’t the main impact.

Ending the book with Bee in the hands of fanatical torturers, just after seeing what said torturers did to the beloved Fool, is crushing. Can’t wait to see how she breaks my heart in the next book.

Lesson #5: Upping the Ante

There are things so much worse than death. I like a good grimdark story as much as the next person. Possibly more than the next person. But murdering characters for shock value does not a narrative make. Don’t get twisted into thinking that death, torture, maiming, loss and illness can’t be effective in degrees. You don’t have to go all the way to be effective. 

Finishing this post I keep thinking of other things to talk about: Fitz saving the dog near the end and how satisfying it is to have him be a righteous badass after so much slow burn patience in the book. Or how painfully unfinished the lives of Revel and others feel when they are murdered.

Man, I missed this.

What did ya’ll think of Fool’s Assassin? Learn anything fun for your writing?

Project Box 02: The Amiable Critique

So I joined Gumroad‘s Small Product Lab on a lark. It sounded like a cool challenge: make and launch a product in 10 days.

Of course, I didn’t notice that most of those 10 days I would be on vacation and at GenCon and driving. So when I got the email telling me to get ready for the lab I freaked out a little.

I was able to keep up with the assignments and participation for the first couple days, and then I got caught up in traveling and family and convention stuff. I got home with three days to do most of the work on my project.

And, well. I like sprints, so I went for launch anyway. And here it is:

The Amiable Critique

It’s ten thoughts about running critiques in a writers group. I’m pretty proud of it. I have an awesome supportive writer’s group, and I want nice things for other people’s writing groups. I hope it’s useful.

I’m going to throw out the first couple pages here so you get a feel for what it’s about.

Here are some thoughts about the process and making it:

1) Tied to the idea of a product is selling it. I set the price at pay what you want, because this is something I want to share, and because I don’t think I do enough to get my stuff out there. If you can donate the price of a cup of coffee, great. But please take it, and make good writing groups!

2) Related… >.> I’m terrible at marketing. I can sprint through making a product, but sharing it… I really suck at this. I look at it, I feel like it’s a good and useful thing, but I don’t know what to say to whom and where to get it out there. That’s something to work on…

3) I really love working with writers to improve their craft. I’m thinking about how to do more of that. If you’re interested in something like a subscription based writing critique group, comment, say hi, whatever.

This was fun. I learned a bit about myself and my philosophy of writing and critiquing — so all around win.

Project Box 01: Crossed Roads, First Draft

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Crossed Roads Map

A modular story is one that can be experienced in any order. Generally you’ll have a beginning point and an ending point (maybe several ending points), with a series of ‘adventures’ that can happen in any order in between. So if A is the beginning, and  X, Y and Z are possible endings, then the rest of the alphabet can show up in any order between those points.

It seems like it’s becoming a more common pattern for games, because it gives a stronger illusion of agency to the player. It’s more open world. But how does it work in writing?

When I’m editing a piece, I’ll sometimes think of it as fractal-like. A story-fractal, if you will. You can start by editing the story, the structure, the monster as a whole. Then you get into arcs and chapters. Peer closer and you’ll find that the scenes are paragraphs. Magnify it again and edit the sentences. Then look at the words and the letters that shape them.

Now, if I was working on a modular narrative for a game, I might look at the story-fractal in a chapter sort of way.

What I’ve been working on is what happens if you look at modular narrative at the sentence level of a story-fractal.

Here’s an example, built in Twine.

So I picked someone walking down a path for this first experiment, honestly because it was pretty easy — as long as nothing stops you from walking down the road, the order of events on the road doesn’t matter. I also tried the same thing with a fight sequence and with a conversation (the conversation was supposed to be a little disorienting — and with that crutch I think it worked. An interview would also be an interesting format that should work with this formula too).

From this first experiment, I expanded it into a larger story: multiple loops made of sentence modules. The loops can also be played in any order. I’m working on editing that now and will put it up when it’s done.

Challenges/Things I’m Considering:

  • I want the finished version to feel like a story. Or at least retain the satisfaction we get from experiencing a story that ‘arcs’ well. How do you build towards an ending when you don’t know which bricks came in which order?
  • How do you include the details which make good worldbuilding/setting without ever relying too heavily on past or future details?
  • How repetitive can you go without losing interest? How is repetition effective in a story like this? Is repetition effective in a story like this?

Things I want to experiment with or would like to see:

  • Other experiments with narrative told through modular sentences. If you build one on Twine or something else, let me know. I’d love to see it.
  • Can we get rid of the beginning and end points? How effective is it, and what does it do to the structure?
  • Because humans experience time as linear, no matter how modular the story is, it still gets experienced in a linear way. Is there a way to break this? How? I know it may be a super non-practical question, but I’m curious. Have a few ideas I want to try in the future.
  • Physical variants on this idea. You could have a deck of cards that did the same thing. Would that be cool? Some board games do really neat things with modular narratives. But they also usually have a social component that enhances that experience. What percentage is there in seeing (physically) that something is random?  Does that enhance the wonder of the storytelling?

What storytelling stuff are ya’ll up to?

Box 19 – David Anthony Durham’s The Other Lands

Other LandsToday we return to the War with the Mein in The Other Lands, and the beautiful writing of David Anthony Durham. The royal Akaran children have grown into the leaders of the Known World and face the unknown challenges of the Other Lands. If you are curious, you can find my post on Acacia, the first novel of this trilogy, right here.

Spoilers. You know, I feel silly saying this every time, but I would also feel terrible if this happened to be the first post you looked at, and I didn’t mention it.

SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW.

Now that my guilt is assuaged, let’s continue. When last we left the Akaran heirs, Corinn had seized power, Mena was a badass and Dariel was still a bit of a pirate. (you know, my “reread” for these was an audiobook so I keep wanting to type “Daario” instead of “Dariel”. Yay for mixing up my fantasy worlds. Anyway…)

Rather than getting too much into plot right away, I’d like to point out that nine years pass between Acacia and The Other Lands, and it works. Pulling off that sort of time jump is daunting, especially in a continuous trilogy. It’s actually the second such gap, the first one happens inside the first book. In both cases Durham strikes a balance between detailed flashbacks and forward motion, so that it feels at once like the characters had lives during the interval, and that we, as readers, didn’t miss anything essential.

Lesson #1: Sketch the in between time. Creating the feeling that a character moves on after your story and lived before it is a challenge, and Durham provides an excellent example of finding the balance between too much and too little information to make the characters breathe.

Next, a question: Have you ever read a book with multiple perspectives where, when the perspective changes, you feel a twinge of annoyance because you were enjoying the perspective of the chapter before? We inevitably have favorites in these multi-POV epics, and it can be difficult to keep all the perspectives engaging all the time.

One of the ways this gets handled in The Other Lands is simple: lots and lots of cliffhangers. Nearly every chapter leaves the POV in dire straights. No mean feat in a four hundred odd page book. But every time I regretted leaving a character, the regret was quickly soothed by the answer to a previous cliffhanger.

Lesson #2: Since, subjectively, all characters are not created equal, a powerful plot point can smooth that twinge of annoyance we felt when a favorite character’s chapter ends. It works particularly well in The Other Lands and adds a headlong momentum to the novel.

Speaking of those cliffhangers — Let’s get briefly into plot. The Numrek appeared in the world with Hanish Mein, as part of an invading force in the first book. They stayed to serve Queen Corinn and her siblings, but we discover that they are lying in wait for their countrymen to join them and intend to conquer the Known World. When their treachery begins, we see it from Corinn’s perspective. The chapter ends and we move to Mena’s POV. Mena is playing with the young Prince Aaden and some of the Numrek are standing guard over them. The scene takes its time to unfold, with Mena realizing, painfully slowly, that something is wrong.

Lesson #3: Watching people do ordinary things when they should be running like hell is effectively stressful for the reader. This particular example is a masterful use of multiple perspective’s to create tension. There are a lot of reasons to avoid too many perspectives, particularly if you are a relatively new writer, but the Other Lands’ use of perspective is something to look at if you insist on many POVs. 

The last thing I want to point out with this novel is the fauna. The beasts living in this world aren’t the standard dragons, griffins, etc… We encounter creatures warped by magic and more natural monsters. For a genre where anything can happen, we still tend to see familiar magical and non-magical fauna. (My personal favorites are the “sea wolves”, a sort of giant squid like thing, but that might just be because I hate the League.)

Lesson #4: Dragons and griffins are all very well, but the variety available from the mythological and natural worlds far exceeds the basics. I find myself thinking I should dig up some of the kid’s nature programs I used to watch for worldbuilding ideas. 

That’s all for now, folks! Thanks for reading.

Box 18: Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora

Rereading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch was a pleasure. This is a book I’ve been recommending whole-heartedly, but I’d forgotten exactly how good it was until I sat down for a reread. So, I’m excited to look at some of the writing lessons in here, and I hope you’ve had a chance to read it on your own. If you haven’t, well, get going.

Below there will be spoilers! You have been warned.

So. The Lies of Locke Lamora. This is the story of a gang of confidence tricksters. It’s also a story of revenge. Arguably, with a coming of age narrative woven throughout.

Briefly, Locke Lamora and his gang, the Gentlemen Bastards, begin a confidence game. At the same time, a war engulfs the underworld of the city-state Camorr. The Gentlemen Bastards get pulled into the underworld war, are double-crossed, and then look for revenge. That’ll do for the moment, I think.

For Lesson #1, I’m going to elaborate on the revenge story element. The underground war is between Capa Barsavi (reigning ruler of all things criminal) and the Grey King. The Grey King cruelly destroys Barsavi’s best people, his family, Locke (as mostly an afterthought) and finally the Capa himself. Afterwards, Locke seeks revenge on the Grey King, whose own campaign against Barsavi was an elaborate revenge scheme.

Lesson #1: Reversing, twisting, or picking an odd perspective in story structures can help generate engaging plots. Normally we get to see a revenge story from the perspective of the wronged party. Just the inversion of that is interesting, but what’s especially fun with Lies of Locke Lamora is that we get to be on the wrong side of a revenge story and then the familiar side, narratively speaking.

Since we’re talking about structure, let’s stick with it. The very first chapter introduces Locke as a six year old who has done something that warrants a throat cutting. The book is called The Lies of Locke Lamora, so the boy’s chances of surviving the first chapter are quite high. Instead of drawing us in with the problem of if Locke will survive, we want to know how he got there in the first place and how he’ll get out of it.

Lesson #2: If can certainly pull us into a story, but generally speaking you’re only going to get a few ifs, unless your structure is quite mad. (i. e. Readers want to know if a character survives, if they are going to succeed, but when you’re writing a protagonist, those aren’t generally going to be answered until the end of a novel). Drawing people in with a how can be just as satisfying and much less predictable. In the case of Locke, I wasn’t really worried about him surviving until the end, but I had no idea how he was going to do it, and the how is something the characters can work with the entire novel, not just at the end.

Can we do one more structure point? Why not? Locke Lamora is split into only 15 chapters, and each chapter is broken into smaller sections. Between these chapters occasionally appears an interlude about the world, rather than the narrative. It’s a clever way to include straight exposition without struggling to have the characters bring it all in naturally or find an appropriate place to integrate it into the story without a break in the writing. On top of this, Lynch uses it for dramatic effect.

Lesson #3: Exposition or background can be a tricky thing to work in without info dumping, either in or out of dialogue. Sometimes it’s better to not worry about concealing it. Lies of Locke Lamora gets around this by just dropping out of the narrative and giving us the appropriate background and it works remarkably well.

For our last lesson, I’d like to mention Lukas Fehrwight. Lukas is a merchant come to Camorr to find a noble benefactor for an unbelievable business partnership. Lukas is a fiction portrayed by Locke throughout the Gentlemen Bastard’s con game. What’s wonderful is that, even from the beginning, the reader knows Lukas is part of the con, and he still ends up feeling like a character.

Lesson #4: Too often we are told that our protagonist is remarkable at their trade without getting to see it. This is a specific place to watch for the old “show, don’t tell” trap. Lukas Fehrwight coming to life on the page reinforces how good Locke is at his profession. When Locke finally drops the act in conversation with his marks, it is subtly jarring and does wonders for instilling the belief that Locke is really really good at acting.

I could keep going with this one. I could mention that it’s an impressive ensemble piece, and that Jean Tannen is a particularly lovely character for a number of reasons. I could mention the way the language sets a tone, or the friggin’ leaping sharks. But then, we’re all going out to reread it again now? Right?

Thanks for reading. Cheers!