“The Comeback,” an old story of mine (originally written fall 2009 and subsequently rewritten) is up at Phantasmacore.

It’s about romance and regret in a steampunk world where martial arts has become big business.


Check it out!

Conventional wisdom says that readers enjoy crime novels because they like picking up the clues that let them try their hand at solving the mystery. Readers of fiction in all its forms also like picking up the clues to the emotional implications of a character’s actions, body language, and dialogue. When you revise your manuscript, look for the specific ways you offer those deeper dimensions.

Don’t Murder Your Mystery

One of the things I was constantly hearing at Clarion West was that you can sometimes get a bigger effect out of a reaction description if you omit the abstract agent of “shock” “pity” “horror”, or whatever it is that causes the reaction.

Horror ran up Cynthia’s spine as she whirled to face him.


A cold tingle ran up Cynthia’s spine as she whirled to face him.

The claim is that in this case, the second sentence is superior to the first because it permits the reader to reconstruct from context what the first states flatly.

If it’s not already evident from context that Cynthia feels horror, something’s wrong with the scene.

In fiction (as well as maybe in reality) abstraction rarely wins out over concrete detail, especially gestural detail.

Apropos of gesture, I recently read in The Secret Language of Success that children who learn to speak early tend to be less aware of body language than kids who speak later. Presumably this is because linguistically apt kiddos are forced to rely on body-language less.

And those early talkers are probably more likely to grow up and become writers than the other kids…

As a result, writers may have a double challenge when it comes to writing Cynthia’s reaction. Not only do we need to sublimate our “core content” (horror) into gestural language that people can understand, but we may be at a disadvantage when it comes to noticing gestures at all. 

Because I’m the kind of person who never pays much attention to body language unless it’s Saturday night and I’m trying to find out if a cute boy wants to kiss me, I was frustrated by this realization.

So much so that it could only come out in a 4chan-style greentext story…

>spend 15 years in school paying attention to language’s propositional content and ignoring body posture, speech tics, etc

>think I’m ignoring the inessential in favor of what Really Matters

>become fiction writer

>realize that you can’t write good scenes without being a good observer of gesture & posture

Nevertheless, we’ve got to learn how to use body language, so we might as well get started now. The comfort of course is that we body language illiterates can at least choose other details… some of the time. The rest of the time, we’ve just got to learn how to watch people.

It was always such little details rather than the lofty ideas which went straight to her heart.

-W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

On the topic of detail winning over abstraction, I also have a nice music theory quote to share. In his edition of Berlioz’ Treatise on Instrumentation, Richard Strauss remarks that a single bow marking is…

often more effective than the most eloquent expression marks such as “gay”, “grazioso”, “spirited”, “smiling”, “defiant”, “furious”, etc. Our worthy instrumentalists and their dear conductors pay very little attention to them.

As a writer, I’ve finally accepted the fact that a very good proportion of Hemingway’s iceberg beeds to stay the hell below the water-line. The question now becomes one of finding oblique ways of using concrete details to state what might (less effectively) be put flat on the page.

I wish I could say more about how to do this, but it’s probably the number one challenge I’m facing right now as a writer. Maybe I’ll never get over it.

What are your thoughts on this topic?


I’ll be taking a break from blogging until April 23 to devote all my attention to a secret project :3 See you all then!

Ah, sidekicks. Sam, Ron, Sancho Panza… the list goes on and on.

I always kind of figured that a sidekick (loosely defined) was a way to give readers/viewers an “easy way into” the story.

Like: for years, millions of youngsters have figured it would be just great to be Robin, so that you could get to live in Wayne Manor, use cool bat-gadgets, and punch out clowns with Batman.

The fact that some of those youngsters might have added a few other fantasies to the mix ❤ couldn’t have hurt matters either…

Batman fears discovery

Cold Shower required

So I was kind of intrigued to see Mieville’s take on them in Un Lun DunIn that story, everyone’s favorite Trotskyite critiques the institution of the Sidekick by having his protagonist discovers that in The Ancient Prophecy, she as listed as (essentially) “Chosen One’s Sidekick.” Her reaction is pretty memorable.

know you’re not a sidekick—”

“No one is!” Deeba shouted. “That’s no way to talk about anyone! To say they’re just hangers-on to someone more important.”

Damn, she’s right……

Nevertheless, the venerable sidekick is probably in no danger of extinction. Because it offers solutions to several formal problems.

There’s always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn’t allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero’s morbid speeches, and so on.
The hero has to supply the narrative dynamic, and therefore can’t have any common-sense. Any one of us in those circumstances would say, ‘What? Dragons? Demons? You’ve got to be joking!’ The hero has to be driven, and when people are driven, common sense disappears. You don’t want your reader to make common sense objections, you want them to go with the drive; but you’ve got to have somebody around who’ll act as a sort of chorus.

Michael Moorcock“How to Write a Novel in Three Days”

Moorcock, 1963

So…I take Moorcock’s point. I take Mieville’s point too. Sidekicks are useful, but on the other hand, they’re sort of politically regrettable.

How do we get the advantages of sidekicks without the degrading consequences?

I can think of a couple ways.

One is to make the sidekick smarter than the hero and therefore able to ironically comment on their follies

Another is to transform the sidekick into the POV character, or push them to the side of the story so they can report on events from a more objective place than the extraordinary, emotionally compromised hero.

Like, there are good reasons why the narrator of Wuthering Heights wasn’t Heathcliff, and why the narrator of The Great Gatsby wasn’t Gatsby.

Yeah, okay, so maybe Nelly Dean & Nick Carraway aren’t technically sidekicks, but Dr. Watson is for sure. Just tthink about how the Sherlock Holmes canon would suffer if Watson got the boot and all the tales were told from Holmes’ POV. No suspense, no humor, no slashy dom/sub interplay…

“I am here to be used, Holmes.”

—Watson in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”

“Good, Watson, good! But not, if I may say so, quite good enough!”

 —Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Of course, if you really want to make sure to avoid Sidekickery at all costs, the final possibility is to make your sidekick a cute animal.

I’m serious.

Consider the little floaty side characters in Yoshitaka Amano character designs, which help to deflate/humanize the mythic/ethereal/aggressive humans….

or the silent animal characters in Miyazaki movies…

from Spirited Away

These cute little guys get into trouble, overeat, get angry, & have all the cowardly reactions the brave hero(ines) aren’t allowed to, exactly as Moorcock recommends!

Plus, they sell lots of merchandise.

Even the Fool in the Rider-Waite Tarot has a cute animal sidekick.

Best of all, Mieville himself uses this method in Un Lun Dun with Curdle, the adorable animated milk carton.

So this technique’s immune to criticism for sure!

See you next time!

From my many precious jewels of fiction quotations, I’ve selected a few that showcase different methods of doing exposition.

Classic Infodump from omniscient POV

Flat statement

Ma KongQun suddenly let out a sigh and said, “You still can’t let go of that incident that happened twenty-three years ago at the base of Wudang Mountain?”

Gu LongBordertown Wanderer

Exposition by crowd/collective

Injun Joe helped to raise the body of the murdered man and put it in a wagon for removal; and it was whispered through the shuddering crowd that the wound bled a little!

-Mark Twain, Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Character learns the situation via summarized “montage”

Lucien threw himself with enthusiasm into inventing the epigrammes used as fill-ups for the newspaper; the journalists smoked and chatted, exchanging the news of the day, picking their colleagues to pieces, and handing on pieces of personal gossip. This conversation, eminently witty, malicious and flippant, put Lucien au courant with the current situation in the literary world.

-Balzac, Lost Illusions (my nomination for best 19th century novel)

Character remembers a detail, but not how he/she knows the detail

As he drove, he continued his theoretical analysis of his situation by means of a second well-established example. They had brought it up and drilled it into his own memory banks during his police training at the academy. Or else he had read it in the newspapers.

Philip K. DickA Scanner Darkly

I should note that this double-explanation move is not only a constant Dickian device that undermines reality itself by undermining how its constituent facts are known, but in this context, it also helps Dick show the protagonist developing two whole different personalities, one police, one civilian!! (Murakami got off easy in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Because his story started after that split took place, he wasn’t forced to show it happening.) I love the double-explanation move so much.

Character spouts a mere theory that  proves nothing, but works as though it does

“Then he dropped through the floor before anything else could hit him.”

“I’ll buy that.”

-Alfred Bester, The Stars my Destination

The typical Alfred Bester character is more interested in advancing the storyline than proving his/her point.

“Up to then he was nobody. Then came the tragedy, and with it the hysteria and the ability. Don’t tell me one didn’t produce the other.”

-Alfred Bester, “Time is the Traitor”

Characters give only half an explanation to increase suspense

“I want you to tell me everything you told them. When you’ve done that, I want you to tell me everything they asked you, whether you could answer it or not. And when you’ve done that, we’ll try to take a little thing called a back-bearing and work out where those bastards all are in the scheme of the universe.”

“It’s a replay,” she said finally.

“What of?”

“I don’t know; it’s all to be exactly the way it happened before.”

“So what happened before?”

“Whatever it was,” she said wearily, “it’s going to happen again.”

John Le CarreThe Honourable Schoolboy

“Because of Explanation X, we can’t know Explanation Y”

ATTRACT MODE (literary equivalent: facts you learn on the book’s cover)

And I’m spent…

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