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 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?

Word Binging

Battlestation

Oh process. Dear writing process. You illusive monster.

I’m working on finding my process. It’s complicated by the other claims on my time. And by my trying to learn lots of different types of writing at once.

My most recent experiment geared towards trying to figure this out was inspired by NaNoWriMo. I finished my NaNo this year, but it was a close thing. I started out okay, but my word counts slipped a week or so in. I didn’t stress because I knew I could do 10,000 words in a day. Knowing I was capable of catching up gave me permission to let the daily word count slide more. And it did. I hit 10,000 behind.

And then I thought — I can probably do more than 10,000. Great idea, yes? My word count slipped further.

I faced the last four days with almost 25,000 words to write. And I did it. I binged through the last few days, and got the word count. It felt great. I was thoroughly energized and wrote some of the best of my NaNo in those last few days of frantic word counts.

My artful procrastination ended up teaching me something about the writing conditions I thrive in. So I decided to try to write a 100,000 word first draft in ten days. 10,000 words a day for 10 days.

It went surprisingly well. I burned through word counts, stuck to my outline and felt engaged by the work. The week was exhausting, and made me a bit manic when I wasn’t writing. But it felt great creatively.

I got to 60,000 before my brain sort of imploded and real life intruded on my word coma. This was disheartening. 60,000 is a ton of words, but less than my goal. Still it was halfway through a draft, and I figured I could finish the rest without too much trouble. I found — to my horror — that when I sat down a few days later with a free hour to keep going  my motivation and energy had vanished. Every word was like pulling teeth.

I tried my 100,000 word draft experiment because I suspected I need ridiculous goals as motivation (for novels, anyway). Plus they feel cool when you hit them. (I like being impressive, dammit. I know that’s awful). The experiment helped. So did reading Kameron Hurley’s awesome post on her process and binge writing.

I’m going to have to work out my schedule so that I have days for binging on words. I still need to finish that draft. But I’m feeling good, since I think I know how to push myself to do it. Apparently, I need writing to be just a hair more grueling that it normally is.

So here’s to 2015, the Year of the Sheep, and pouring all our words onto pages in whatever way works for you.

Spilling Your Guts or NaNoWriMo 2014

We’re almost a week into NaNo, and every year I cajole and threaten and bribe new people into trying this mad dash of insane writing with me. Each year I pick up new companions on the road to 50,000 and keep some from last year. I begin to feel like we’re in Pamplona and we’re the bulls. Get out of our way, word counts! There will be no mercy!

I love NaNo. It’s a rush to pound the words out, even if they suck. It just feels good to be cobbling together a story — whatever sort of Frankenstory it will be.

This year I have an extra challenge for myself. I know I can tear through a messy 50,000 words. I’ve done it before, and woe betide the mundane world that gets in the way of my word count.

This year I want to get some blood on the page. I know it’s a little gross, but it’s the Hemingway quote, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Bloodless writing is so much easier, so much safer and it’s easy to forget that something honest is usually a combination of beauty and horror rather than one or the other.

Our lives are full of places where a little dishonesty is necessary for self preservation. Masks, personas, politenesses get us through the day. Plus it’s scary to look behind those things. And hell, if we did it all the time we’d all be madder than we are.

But that’s part of the fun of NaNo. The speed can be a tool for pushing ourselves to put more truth in the great and wonderful lies of fiction — along with just getting the words down.

This NaNo, write with abandon, write for the fun of it, write for the honesty. Write because there is nothing so wonderful as building crystalline mazes and enchanted mountains from nothing but words and  little bloody bits of our souls.

Happy NaNoWriMo everyone!

I Live In the Sky Today

Another story fragment thingy. Popped into my head in Singapore. Thanks Marina Bay Sands.

We are on to Malaysia now, working on a new draft of Smarasmarya. Yay editting.

As we rose into the sky, I gripped the railings with white knuckled hands, looking down while my world dropped away. Patolin, my guide, watched the Pinnings vanish without emotion as we climbed into the clouds.

“You do not like heights?” asked Patolin.

“I have never been this high before,” I said.

“Ah. Yes.” It seemed to satisfy him and he walked with ease to the other side of the rocket platform. The enclaves below now seemed like tiny barnacles colorfully clinging to the shore that was my mountains.

Patolin was not looking down.

Above, zooming into view, were the Skygardens.

I never thought I would get here.

The first Pinnings folk, two hundred of us, were rocketing up to the Skygardens all at the same time.

The rocket passed through the clouds, soft white obscuring my vision. I shivered as the droplets clung to my glasses. I had to take them off and clean them on my also damp shirt, and so, accidently missed my first glimpse of the Skygardens.

They were only a blur of color until I had my glasses back on my nose.

Below me, climbing out of the clouds were vines, wrapping and twisting through the unstable vapors. I tried to see what was holding them all up. It was the great mystery of the Skygardens. What kept them in the sky?

The vines seemed to be holding up the other structures – fantastical buildings shaped like birds, like ships, like trees or echoing the vines themselves.

“How?” I asked. “How…” The word escaped without my registering that it had.

“Pardon?” asked Patolin.

“How are they held up? How do they stay in the sky?”

“We do not know,” said Patolin.

“What?” I asked, aghast. “Who does?”

“No one, so far as I am aware.”

I looked at the dreamlike palaces, growing from the clouds before my eyes, floating in the sky.

“You don’t know how the Skygardens are held in the sky.”

Patolin tilted his head, as though to say, ‘yes, that is what I said. Why are you repeating it?’

“How do you live here?” I asked. I took a deep breath, feeling the weighted panic in my chest that said my body objected to what my brain was registering.

“What do you mean?”

“How do you live here? What if it stops working? What if you all fall?”

Patolin smiled. “Ah, so you Pinners do live in the future.”

“What?” I crouched down, touching the solidity of the platform, focusing on it to keep from thinking of the mile of air below me.

“I live in the sky today,” said Patolin. “Perhaps I will get to live here tomorrow as well. Perhaps not. Either way, I live in the sky today.”