View Full Version : Plunge In or Wade In?

05-12-2005, 08:03 PM
This question is really a subjective one, but it came to me in after reading responses to a piece I posted in "Share Your Work."

As a reader, do you prefer to be plunged into the initial conflict of a story, or do you like to be led in slowly, have a little background information about the situation first?

Just a question of curiosity really, because I have read authors that do it both ways, and if the story is good (not implying my shared piece was good by the way), it works for me both ways. Just wondering how other people felt about it.

And, since there will be people on both sides of this, how can you, as a writer, compensate and please both groups?

05-12-2005, 08:50 PM
I tend to wade in slowly, building up a solid background and setting the stage before beginning the action.

I have no reason for that other than "it works for me." Your mileage may vary.

05-12-2005, 08:52 PM
Do I need to know about the preamble, or is it just padding?

If the former, fine, but make it interesting; if the latter, why isn't it on the cutting room floor?

05-12-2005, 09:08 PM
Know your story. Where does it really begin? In Alice in Wonderland, the story really begins when she's in her oridinary world... because the ending is a full circle. Same with OZ. Now, in Harry Potter, we also have "ordinary world" but we are immediately introduced to the wizards. It takes a while before Harry even knows what's going on. But it works. It's never "boring."

Some stories doesn't require that ramp-up time, because the ordinary world doesn't matter to the story. You can have Alice inside the looking glass immediately if she's never gonna come back. Or Harry at Hogwart's if he's not going to come back to the muggle's world. Otherwise, either way (start with a set up, or use flashback/dialogue/expo/whatever) you'll need to explain that ordinary world.

05-12-2005, 09:44 PM
it depends, of course. generally, and this is just my opinion, most epic fantasy starts off slow, building up a little backstory involving a perfect shire, burrough, city, whatever, to illustrate why their world is worth saving before the innocent misfits are recruited for a long journey to destroy the great evil threatening their destruction. depending on how much the author feels he needs to pad his story depends on how long this goes on, but my experience is it doesn't go on for more than a good sized chapter out of a trilogy. then there are lots of references to some specifics along the way, invariably remembering the taste of some food, some event, or some virginal halfling babe with big knockers working at the tavern. that's just the kind of stuff i expect from traditional epic fantasy writing. (personally, were i to start one of those, and i probably will never do one, it'd start off with the hero on his deathbed and recalling the events that led to his mortal wound. you'd know from the get-go you're involving yourself with a character on his last legs and you'd read it anyway. sucker.) on occassion, it might start off with an ancient battle that sets up the current events, but that's pretty cheesy at this point.

single self-contained fantasy books i've read in the past few years (which have vastly been dominated by TSR (dungeons and dragons) publications), like to start off with a bit of action, like the thief doing his thing and making a narrow escape only to find out he is a she and she's the daughter of a prominant merchant. note that the epic has a longer ramp-up due to its ensemble nature, while following a character or two tends to be more action oriented.

how do you do both? well, you either have action from page one or you don't. is there a middle ground? you could focus on one of the ensemble characters as he's marching off to the final conflict, the din of battle in the distance, then go into flashback mode. you get a sense of impending action that way and the reader knows what to expect by the end without knowing the outcome. is that middle ground? obviously at some point you have to do some world-building. the reader may be curious to know why exactly one of the heroes are marching in the ranks of the orc army against the last bastion of goodness.

depending on what i read depends on how i expect the book to start. as a writer, what excites and challenges me most about the process is the arrangement of events. writing things out on a flat plane doesn't do much for me unless the idea demands it. otherwise, like in an epic fantasy, the only way i could possibly be enticed to write such a thing would be to play with its construction. for instance, i like the aftermath of an event. remember the beginning of 'pirates of the caribbean', where they come across a destroyed ship and the black pearl is escaping into the mist? that's a perfect beginning to me. it establishes characters, background, and sets up the mystery. what more could you ask? i love 'indiana jones'-style openings, too.

(come to think of it, the PotC opening is rather illogical. there are several unanswered questions i have there, but maybe they're answered in the movie and i just don't remember, heh heh. anyway....)

since i tend to go in for stories with a few characters, starting it off with some action works for me. you can do quite a bit of world and character building with action, action speaking louder than words and all that and 'show, don't tell'. that's really more the kind of thing i expect there.

really, though, i don't place too much emphasis on how the story starts either way. if your ship is spinning out of control, on trial for insubordination or he starts off in a cubicle or sitting on his front porch waiting for the wizard makes none to me if it's appropriate and that's what i'm in the mood for.

how do you please both groups? well, i reckon first you have to please yourself. i write what i want to write first, then take the reader into consideration, because if i start off writing only for them, there's no point putting my name of it. there are plenty of hacks out there who write simply to get published, which very much negates the reason for my literary existance if all i'm doing is trying to get my name out there and don't have any personal feelings for the thing, and i can't have any attachment to it unless i'm involved a lot deeper than being the conduit for cliche stories. i'd otherwise get into scratch model building as a diversion, lol.

eh, *shrugs shoulders*, either way works for me. as a writer i like to be a bit more inventive in the arrangement, though, if the story allows that. i *tend* to start off slow if it's a novel, but nearer to instant action for short stories. even then, though, i tend to focus on the tension in a situation than the action. anyone who's slogged through my 'the last outpost' in share your work can get an overall feeling for how i handle a short story (okay, a long short story). (you can also see why i don't write a lot of action, lol). in that, it's an alamo-impending-doom thing more than an action story. it was just a story that interested me with no regards with compensating to appeal to anyone else. i just find that when i start writing stories and begin making all sorts of compromises to it to suit what i think the reader expects, it turns out to be the reason why i stopped reading as much as i used to: that is, what's the point? i've certainly limited whatever potential readership i'd garner had i caved in and given everyone exactly what they want, but oh well, popularity clearly isn't high on my priority list, lol.

it raises an interesting question, doesn't it? i mean, compromise is a pretty big part of a relationship, this being the relationship between the writer and reader. so, to a certain extent, you *should* give 'em what they want, no? on the flip-side, this is my story and i'm telling it to you: this isn't a collaboration, take it for what it is or go to hell if you don't like it. i guess the balance there depends on how much of an artist you feel like being versus how much of a hack you are. no bonus points for guessing which side i put more weight on, lol. i don't tack on happy endings so the reader has fuzzy feelings in the end, nor do i start them off in any other way than it's because what the story dictates and it's the beginning i'm most interested in. consequently, i don't do the opposite just to be different.

i like reading both beginnings. i like writing both kinds. that's just one thing i look for when i open up a book. especially in the beginning i'm not expecting to be gripped hard, i'm more looking at style. i'm very tired and just blathering, so i'll stop now after meeting my sixty thousand words per post quota, heh heh.

Sharon Mock
05-13-2005, 12:41 AM
It really does depend on the individual work.

If you wade in, make sure you start with forward motion. Conflict, something out of the ordinary, something that foreshadows what's to come. Not only is more than a few paragraphs of mundane establishing shot usually uninteresting to read, it's usually excruciatingly painful to write.

If you leap in with both feet, make sure you've given a reader a reason to invest in what's going on. Make sure the events are clear and concise and that you're not suffocating the reader with backfill.

I tried to start my WIP in media res, but the underlying sociopolitical situation is so complex and so essential that I've had to push the beginning back several times. I think I'm starting in the right place now, finally. Though not with the right events. But at least it's progress.

05-13-2005, 03:27 AM
I just finished reading Greg Keyes's The Briar King, an epic fantasy (book one of what I believe will be a four book series). Keyes has a prologue which begins right in the middle of a great battle, then the first few chapters switch to more of a slow building up (a definite wading in).

I think the key to either approach is having fully alive characters from the start. I hung in with the initial battle even though I had no idea what was going on because I was intrigued with the two main characters of that scene. I was willing to hang in with the first couple of slow chapters (the wading in) because again I was willing to live with the main characters for a while 'til things picked up.

The issue probably is one of ymmv, but characters are key for me. I try to remember that in my own writing, though it seems to me that making characters really come alive for the reader is one of the most difficult aspects of writing.

05-13-2005, 04:57 AM
Hello all,

I don’t think a wham-bang opening is necessary. But many feel it is an easier way to hook your reader.

The only essential really is some sort of conflict that will intrigue the reader and cause them to read further. That is why action scene opening’s are often used by many writers.

With action it is easier to evoke images in the reader and the pace causes them to speed through until they find themselves at chapter 2 or whatever. Plus when using action-oriented prose, it’s easier to show your character through their actions – which means easier identification and bonding with your character.

But a slower beginning is just as fine as long as there is some kind of conflict – meaning opposing action/circumstance to your character’s action/curcumstance – not necessarily violence, action etc. Even if it’s just the character trying to sleep and the phone rings, waking him up. As long as it keeps the reader turning the page to find out more – either about your character or about your world or about your character’s situation.

The only thing is that - the slower the beginning, the stronger the writing needs to be. With a slower pace beginning, you must still find a way to show your character (through action, dialogue etc) and keep the reader intrigued. You must use language that will evoke strong images in your reader but since the pace is undoubtedly slower - the weaker the writing, the greater the risk of losing your reader (or an editor) before the action really starts.

One thing many writers do is to write an opening with a small-scale, introductory conflict that eventually leads to the main conflict of the story. The small conflict allows you to let your reader get to know your character, the world you’ve created and lets them get adjusted to your world and your style while still keeping them reading.

As an example:

Joe Brightblade has just left an inn and thinks he is being followed. As he makes his way through the streets, you can slowly show your world and your character while keeping the reader intrigued because he (and the reader) doesn’t know who’s following him or why.

Then he is attacked, a fight ensues and while he kills/runs off two of the attackers – the 3rd one has him at bay and is about to kill him. Suddenly the attacker is bought down by a mysterious helper who claims she/she was sent to find Joe Brightblade – he is the world’s only hope!!!

Kinda cliché-ish but it’s just a fantasy type example off the top of my head and shows what I mean by keeping the reader interested by keeping the questions coming.

At the end of the chapter, the reader is wondering who the hell the attackers were, who this rescuer is, why Joe is so important to her and her world-saving club, what the hell is going on etc.

You want the reader wanting to know what’s going on (to a certain extent) for a while – at least until they become attached to your characters and your world.

That’s why beginnings are so important. They’re like first dates. You need to make a good impression so they will want a second date and get to know you better, but you also need to keep a little mystery at first. Once they fall in love with you – then they’ll be more willing to forgive any minor lapses in your storytelling.

Just my input…

05-13-2005, 05:16 AM
As a thrill-seeker, I tend to prefer plunging than wading in, but when the writing is really good, I'll wade, plunge, sink, swim -- whatever the author wants. I'm reading Assassin's Apprentice (Robin Hobb) now. Although it's a slower-moving story, I am enjoying every word of it.

05-13-2005, 05:21 AM

The Assassin Trilogy is EXCELLENT!! Have you read the Liveship Traders Trio by Hobb?

That's a perfect example too. Her writing is superb, and while the beginning is not action packed - it is written in first poerson and she makes the character intiguing.

Plus, once again, the opening poses questions that the reader wants answered:

Who is this person and how did they get this way????

05-13-2005, 06:15 AM
Exactly! I am SO happy to have the whole trilogy in front of me -- haven't read Lifeship Traders, but a friend has just gotten it and she's practically giddy. It's been so long since I've read an author so gifted with storytelling. I'm reading for pleasure now, but later I'll go back and analyze her writing. I couldn't write like her -- she has a very different style than I do -- but I think I could learn a lot from her.

05-13-2005, 02:05 PM
Each to their own: I tried one of the Lifeship books, but I got bored with it after a few pages and ended up giving it to a charity shop.

I find for me, the writing style is paramount. When I was 16 I had the patience to wade through dry writing to find an interesting plot, but at 46 if I open a book at random and the style of the first few paragraphs I see doesn't grab me, I'm probably not going to bother.

If it does, though... I recently spent a fortune I couldn't afford, and several weeks of my life, obsessively ploughing through the whole Outremer sequence in one go, because the first few paragraphs chosen at random *had* grabbed me.

05-13-2005, 02:17 PM
I prefer to hit the ground running.

05-13-2005, 04:56 PM
This is a genre/sub-genre question. Classical example: Jurasic Park wades into the dinosaurs because it's a Thriller, not Scifi, which would plunge in.

It partly depends on what the story's about.

05-13-2005, 08:43 PM
perhaps to help joe brightblade seem a little more interesting at the risk of sacrificing a little characterization (at least what can be derived from the mundane things like leaving the tavern), you could start him off hiding behind a corner catching his breath and looks at his bloody hands. his reaction to that is pretty telling, eh? he peeks around the corner to find his assailants stalking the dark alley, carefully seeking him out. by paragraph two, his reaction tells you all you need to know about the type of person he is, whether he runs screaming like a girl, looks around for a way to divide his persuers to take them out, or just draws his knife and plunges into the fray. is he terrified by the blood on his hands or just wipes them on the wall, otherwise non-plussed? not only would that be more interesting as a reader, but it'd be by far more interesting to write. it also plays to a younger crowd, i feel, who's more used to action at the snap of a finger. then again maybe i was born to write commercials, lol.

CB's example of using a prologue to have a battle in the opening of a fantasy epic is very much akin to my example in the previous post. a prologue is where this stuff belongs. of course it depends on how appropriate it is, but just to me, as a writer, if i'd done something like that i'd have tried to start with the aftermath and save battle action for later. a survivor carefully picking his way through the carnage is more interesting to me than the left flank beginning to wane or the archers on the wall running out of arrows: the place for that, in my story, would be for later. details like that in the beginning just have absolutely no meaning.

the point is where you start in an action sequence can be as interesting as the action itself. especially if you have something rather cliche like brightblade, maybe starting a bit later puts enough of a spin on it to throw the reader off the scent that your opening doesn't exactly reach for the stars. i mean, if you're going to start off with some action, damnit, start off with some action, lol.

05-15-2005, 03:23 AM
Each to their own: I tried one of the Lifeship books, but I got bored with it after a few pages and ended up giving it to a charity shop.
Really? LOL!! One of the things I find endlessly fascinating is how tastes differ. Which is a good thing!

I originally read it back in '98 and by then had been definitely fed up with the cliched fantasy novel. Some of the things that drew me into the book were:

The fact that there were no elves, hobbits or dwarves,

It wasn’t a typical middle-age world,

It wasn’t knights with swords fighting orcs and goblins,

There wasn’t an evil overlord and a race of mindless, totally evil beings that followed him/it,

There wasn’t an orphan with a hidden noble ancestry,

There was no prophecy,

There was no magical super-good device that would save the world,

The bad guys weren’t absolutely evil to the bone (or what I call Just Cuz Evil) – they were just people with different agendas than the protagonists.

The characters displayed a full range of human emotion – the hero’s weren’t goody-goodies who’s teeth sparkled and who only radiated wholesome good thoughts. They made mistakes, showed bad judgment, knew greed, lust, jealousy as well as bravery, etc.

It was well-written.

I enjoyed the opening chapter and was intrigued by Kennit the pirate, whom Robb displayed as cunning, greedy, wicked etc – yet oddly enough – still likable!! That’s another one of the things that drew me in – a true rogue! Plus it says much of a writer’s skill when they can make such an unsavory character sympathetic and likable!

05-15-2005, 03:29 AM
Which leads me to something else concerning beginnings.

No matter whether you go with a fast paced action opening or a slower paced opening - the most important thing is to intrigue the reader and raise questions in them. Every successful SFF openeing I've ever read - regardless of writing style or POV etc always asks questions that the reader must then read on to find the answers to.

The opening chapter should ask a story question that will pique the reader's curiosity.

Who is this person?
Why do they want that?
How did they get into that situation?
How will thet get out?
Will they get what they want?
What the hell's going on?

Openings should be about raising questions. The rest of the story is about answering them...

05-15-2005, 03:55 PM
The writing-style just didn't grab me I'm afraid - and they are enormously long books and I don't have much free time or much patience with fantasy anyway, so I couldn't spare the time to give them a whirl and see if they improved. That's not to say they aren't good - but it's like music: even if a piece is very good of its type, if it's not the sort of music you like, you probably won't enjoy it. I can tell the difference between good jazz and bad jazz - but however good it is I'm still not going to like it much.I personally adore Terry Pratchett (despite the fantasy element) but several of my friends find his style too obtrusive.

05-15-2005, 04:54 PM
Short stories: I like to be dropped into them with just enough to know which way is up. The first few sentences should set the scene, preferably through the protagonist's eyes, and without dumping a history lesson on my head. You don't have the luxury of slow-moving paragraphs, because an editor reading the piece is trying to decide whether their readers are going to persist or give up.

Novels: Here you have room to move. Be aware that most people considering a novel from a writer they've never heard of (that's most of us ;-) will check the back cover blurb, and if that sounds interesting they will read the first page right there in the book store. If the first page is boring, slow or convoluted you have less chance of picking up a new fan. (I'm not talking about people who picked up your book because a friend gave it a thumbs up, just casual browsers.) So, although you have bags of space to fill with fascinating historical facts you still need an interesting first page.

05-17-2005, 02:24 AM
That is a very good point, which led me to experiment with the WIP. If you read the following as a cover blurb, do you think it would grab you and encourage you to read more?


On a world of fierce winds and towering mountains the Urrrchauuu, four-footed hunter-gatherers, must decide whether to make peace with humanity - or eat it. If they choose to make peace they may still have to make war; for they must also decide whether or not to intervene in a campaign of racial and religious persecution being waged by one human tribe against another.

High against the cold sky, among the ruins of an ancient civilization, a secret crime is being committed. An Urrrchauuu agent and a woman of the persecuted an-t'Hassa must travel far, from the sea to the mountains and the great fault-scar of Half-Mile Cliff, from the fallen cities to the freezing swamps of the Dead Land, before they can uncover what crime it is, and rearrange the political map of a continent.

05-17-2005, 08:04 AM
you lost me with "uuurrrrchauuu"

05-17-2005, 12:56 PM
Made up names with odd punctuation are passe, I suspect. What do they call themselves?

05-17-2005, 01:35 PM
Urrrchauuu. It means something like "runners" and is pronounced <short growl><fading howl>. These things look like a three-way cross between a wolf, a foal and a mangy hearthrug, and their language sounds like a cat-fight in an aluminium dustbin.

If you're writing fantasy, you can have a dragon that speaks English and nobody will worry about it: but if you're writing SF, realistically something which has a mouth completely different in shape from a human mouth is going to have great difficulty pronouncing human languages, and will in turn have a language which humans have great difficulty pronouncing. "Urrrchauu" is probably about as close to the actual sound of the word in their language as "meow" is to the real sound a cat makes.

05-17-2005, 02:41 PM
Er, sorry, Whitehound, but it's too wordy and too vague for me. I would pass.

05-17-2005, 02:55 PM
Mm, but cover-blurbs on SF usually *are* more wordy than the actual writing inside, and it's difficult to summarize it without being vague, because it's full of twists - and anything too specific may give away part of the plot before I want to.

Even refering to the swamps of the Dead Land is giving away a point - because in the story itself, the first time the Dead Land is mentioned it's in a context that will encourage readers to think it's a religious/mythological reference: it takes several chapters for them to find out that it's a real place.

That is itself another question: how far is it desirable to give away the plot of the story, spoil your cunning surprizes and put safety-harnesses on your clif-hangers, in order to attract readers by telling them what to expect?

05-17-2005, 03:43 PM
Urrrchauuu. It means something like "runners" and is pronounced <short growl><fading howl>. These things look like a three-way cross between a wolf, a foal and a mangy hearthrug, and their language sounds like a cat-fight in an aluminium dustbin.

If you're writing fantasy, you can have a dragon that speaks English and nobody will worry about it: but if you're writing SF, realistically something which has a mouth completely different in shape from a human mouth is going to have great difficulty pronouncing human languages, and will in turn have a language which humans have great difficulty pronouncing. "Urrrchauu" is probably about as close to the actual sound of the word in their language as "meow" is to the real sound a cat makes.

Disagree. I think the modern convention is to offer the names explicitly in translation where people understand the language, e.g.

The alien thing stalked closer. "Bonga bonga bonga Urrrchauuu."

I edged away and reached for my fusion pistol.

Eric laughed. "Idiot. He's just saying, Hi. I'm the ambassador of the Runners."

The alien raised its paws. "Urrrchauuu," it repeated, a short-growl-fading howl sound, then solemnly nodded its great head.

"That means Runner," said Eric.

I would be very surprised if many readers would enjoy mastering a made up language.

05-17-2005, 04:53 PM
But people *don't* understand the language - it's a first contact story.

It's not required that readers learn the language - other than personal names there are only a few words thrown in and they're explained and translated, as e.g. "We have a saying 'nish aumram kavesh' - mean 'even kings have fleas'."

But none of the humanoids speaks or understands the language of the Urrrchauuu, and at the start of the story none of them even knows that the Urrrchauuu are intelligent. They do have their own word for them, but it's the name of a beast (and only slightly more pronouncable). And it's told from the point of view of one of the humanoids, not one of the Urrrchauuu.

We do tend to call foreign societies by whatever name they call themselves, even though it's a strange language. Not always - we tend to just call Australian Aborigines Aborigines - but e.g. we call the Navaho the Navaho or the Dineh, we don't call them by their own translation of Dineh (which afaik just means Our People). We call Campbells Campbells, we don't call them Crook-Backs, even though that's what it means in their original language (Gaelic).

If an alien actually came up to you and said "My people are called Urrrchauuu" I think you would call them that, as near as you could pronounce it - you wouldn't demand a translation.

05-17-2005, 05:18 PM
If an alien actually came up to you and said "My people are called Urrrchauuu" I think you would call them that, as near as you could pronounce it.

I take your point. However, we still use German in preference to the easily pronounced Deutsch (and during the hostilities of our grandparents' time we called them other things such as Hun, Krauts, Boche, and Jerries).

Colonial examples are probably more useful. The Romans called the North British natives Picts when the evidence suggests that they used something totally different. Welsh is just Saxon for foreigner. The Greeks and Romans used Barbarian because that's how foreigners sounded. To the Byzantines, anybody living on the Steppes - Huns, Tartars, Mongols - was a Scythian. To the Saracens, you and I would have been Franks, even though we're both Scots. To the crusaders, the myriad Islamic cultures of the Middle East were all Saracens.

So, wouldn't the colonists be most likely to use a punning rendition of Urrchauu, e.g. "Lurchers", or perhaps something descriptive such as "Furby"?

05-17-2005, 06:35 PM
I think you would use the name they use for themselves if you knew it, unless there were hostilities and humanity was being disrespectful. The examples given of what Germans were called during WWI and WWII were designed to differentiate them. It was war; it's important in such things not to have your citizens thinking of the other side as just people, doing their best to get by.

As for the cover blurb listed, it does nothing to capture my interest. Why are you concerned about the cover blurb now, though? Is the book about to be published? Has your publisher asked you to write the blurb? If not, don't worry about these details now. If so, maybe you should ask someone else to read the manuscript and summarize it for you, as you might be too close to it.

Sharon Mock
05-18-2005, 01:53 AM
If it were spelled Urchau, I wouldn't bat an eye at it. Even Urrchauu would probably work. But I can think of no transliterations into the Roman alphabet that make use of tripled letters.

Based on your cover blurb, I would never know it was written from the humanoid POV. But really, unless you're to the point of working on query letters, it doesn't matter much at this point.

05-18-2005, 02:29 AM
You can spell it Urrukau - I may well do so, if people find Urrrchauuu distracting, and keep the more accurate rendering for the glossary!

The human(oids) aren't exactly colonists - not the sort Zornhau is thinking of, anyway. They're just another sort of more manlike (i.e. bipedal) alien, native to that planet but not to that continent. So no earth-type Furby-type names as such. I suspect that once the human(oids) had become used to the Urrrchauuu they would probably call them Erks - certainly by the end of the story (about 130 years later) some people were just calling them fuzzballs!

[In the latter part of the story btw there's an Urrrchauuu who is simply called "Growl" because her true name is so far unpronounceable that the humanoids just say "It just sounds like a growl to me," until she gets into the habit of calling herself that as well.]

It occurs to me that many nations' names for themselves either just mean "Us" or they mean something the people themselves don't understand. Britain for example is a modernish corruption of a 2,000-year-old Roman corruption of a Phoenician corruption of the name of an Iron-Age tribe called something like Pritanii - but what does Pritanii mean? I don't know - and I strongly suspect that no-one does.

France means "country of the Franks" - but what does Frank mean?

One of the strangest national names is Alba. The Romans sometimes called Britain, especially what is now England, Alba, White Country, because the first thing you saw of it was the white chalk cliffs of Dover. The modern derivative Albion is still applied either to Britain as a whole or to England. But when the Norsemen came the old name Alba came to be applied only to those bits which were still *old* Britain, not the newfangled Danelaw. Gradually, Alba got edged further north until it is now thought of as the real, old and traditional name of Scotland - which has no chalk and isn't white at all unless you paint it.

05-18-2005, 03:42 AM
[In the latter part of the story btw there's an Urrrchauuu who is simply called "Growl" because her true name is so far unpronounceable that the humanoids just say "It just sounds like a growl to me," until she gets into the habit of calling herself that as well.]

Please don't use that "unpronounceable" tripe in the book. I've encountered a number of readers and writers who simply hate seeing that in a book. I don't recall the site, but I think that's also mentioned in some guides on writing.

05-18-2005, 04:10 AM
Why do you think its "tripe" to suggest that two physically very different species, with radically different mouths, tongues, teeth and vocal cords, might not be able to pronounce each other's language? Do you think that all alien species will have exactly the same vocal apparatus as we do?

Animal behaviourists have recently identified a rudimentary language among prairie dogs, including 20 separate words identifying different predators and situations. Do you think that you personally could pronounce many words in prairie dog? *Any* words in prairie dog? Can you pronounce dolphin, or elephant?

For that matter, can you even pronounce any of those southern African human languages with all the tongue-clicks? I've always heard it said that nobody who wasn't raised to them from infancy could reproduce those sounds accurately - or even hear the differences between them.

In fact, I was at university with a Telogu-speaking Asian girl who was doing a PhD in linguistics - so hearing and reproducing the exact sound of words was her profession - and she was quite unable to pronounce the word "Switzerland" accurately and - which was the interesting part - she was quite unable to hear that she was saying it wrong. She absolutely could not hear any difference between the sounds Switz and Svitch - and that was just between two human languages, pronounced with the same vocal apparatus, separated by only a few thousand miles and doubtless with many common roots.

PS and btw and all that, I think it's extremely ill-mannered to call someone else's idea "tripe" just because problems in linguistics don't happen to interest you. Speaking personally, your own Mediaeval flying-suit theme would bore the arse off me, and if I came across a fantasy with a character in it called Brightblade, as in preyer's "typical fantasy" example, I would drop the book as if it had maggots - but I don't call your story or preyer's example "tripe," I just call them "not my cup of tea."

05-18-2005, 06:07 AM
Dave/Whitehound, let's keep the discussion civil, okay?

Dave, each author must make their own choices for what is best for their work. Unless we have everything in context, it is difficult to judge whether something works or not.

Whitehound, I understand you found Dave's comments hurtful, but no need to lash back out.

Let's take a deep breath, step back, and come back to the conversation at hand, okay?

05-18-2005, 06:14 AM
and if I came across a fantasy with a character in it called Brightblade, as in preyer's "typical fantasy" example, I would drop the book as if it had maggots - but I don't call your story or preyer's example "tripe," I just call them "not my cup of tea."
Howdy Whitehound,

Actually, I was the one who used the name Joe Brightblade as a tongue in cheek fantasy-type name. Whenever I give an example I always use obvious genre -specific names like Johhny Goodguy, Susie Brightcheeks etc.

05-18-2005, 07:00 AM
Oh, right - well, whoever's joke it was originally, still it's a jokey cliché because it *is* a fantasy cliché - there do seem to be a lot of books with characters with names like that in them, and it tends to signal a certain type of bog-standard swords-and-sorcery story which I find an instant turn-off.

That may be unfair: it's probably perfectly possible to write a very good story in which the characters have names like that (and indeed two of my Urrrchauuu or Urrukau or whatever you want to call them have names which translate as Blade of Moon and The Cutting Edge). But those names have come to be typical of a certain type of story (which of course was why you/Preyer used them as an example) - just as characters called Scarlette or Darlene probably indicate a slushy romance.

It's easy to make snap judgments - it took me years to get into the Discworld books, because I disliked the Josh Kirby covers so much that they put me off from reading the books, and I'm not the only one who found that. Yet now I adore the series, and I am at least now able to look at a Kirby cover without feeling physically sick.

I'm trying to write a cover-blurb because I want to write the sort of thing which would attract *me* to a book if I read it - that is, it's got furry nonhuman aliens, it's got geography, it's got complex politics and a detective-story element. Maybe my tastes are too specialized, but they can't be *that* rare - the Chanur books (which are among my favourite books of all time) have all of those things - aliens, planets, politics, detective element *and* weird languages and unpronounceable names - and they are best-sellers.

05-18-2005, 07:08 AM
I see nothing wrong with coming up with a blurb for your book at all. (Provided it doesn't distract from the writing)

Having the core idea/synopsis of your story known and established is good for a writer, I would think. Editors want this when it comes query/synopsis time and many writers have a problem getting this part down.

Anyways - don't take what others say too much to heart. Once your WIP is done, have a few betas go through it and then make changes accordingly. Or submit it to an agent/editor and hopefully they will give you input if any is required.

The point is: Get to the end, see what works and what doesn't and then revise accordingly.

Good luck on your journey, fellow traveler...

05-18-2005, 07:20 AM
Whitehound, I understand you found Dave's comments hurtful, but no need to lash back out.It's not that I found it hurtful, but I did think it was out of order - and bizarre.

I'm sure there are fantasy books which over-use the idea of unpronounceable names as a cop-out - since I read very little fantasy except Terry Pratchett I wouldn't know. But if we are writing reasonably hard SF then we should, surely, be aiming for some degree of realism - and if we ever do make contact with intelligent aliens then one of the things which is likely to happen is that we are going to find ourselves talking to things which make sounds we can't reproduce.

That's OK in a high-tech. setting where you can use synthesizers to imitate the aliens' voices and they can do ditto for ours: but I'm writing about two societies one of which is pre-Stone Age and the other of which has just about discovered the crossbow. [The bit about ruins of an ancient civilization is a red herring, something of a joke on all those post-apocalyptic stories - in this case the ancient high-tech civilization whose wonders have been lost to science these three thousand years had gotten as far as building a steam-powered winch! Which was made of bronze.]

Fortunately (and necessarily for the story) the Urrukau are good enough mimics that they can learn and make themselves understood in the languages of the humanoids, at least after a fashion: but the humanoids are never going to be able to pronounce more than a few words in Urrukau, slowly and awkwardly. But they will try: one of the things that happens later on is that the new political alliance makes contact with another and more sophisticated human(oid) society on another continent, and there the Urrukau become a fad and a fashion and people start giving their kids cod attempts at Urrukau names.

05-18-2005, 08:01 AM
whenever we do a cliche, as in 'the name was unpronouncable,' maybe it's good to expound slightly as to why it's unpronouncable, like you did in your reply. the impression i got was the idea wasn't 'tripe,' but merely saying 'the name was unpronouncable' explicitly in the book is. for what it's worth, i'd have been defensive about it, too, though my initial reading of it i didn't pick up on anything intentionally meant to be a bash.

i'm particular about the names in a story. i've mentioned before that i abhor names with ten consonants, one vowell, and an apostrophe or hyphen thrown in. i've certainly missed out on many good books i've put down after flipping through it and finding bizarre names for every single character. just me, of course, but i prefer keeping it simple, not only for the reader's sake, but for mine, also. for example, 'preyers' race of bad guys are calle the Aru. it has no meaning, no historic allusion or significance i'm aware of. i'd much write three letters than ten, lol!

personally, the name didn't do anything for me. shortened is much better, i think. all i get out of a string of three 'r's is a rolling sound (is it called trilling?), or just carrying out the sound longer than we're used to. not sure what to make of the 'u's. considering that humans will bastardize the sound to suit ourselves in all of three seconds, i think making a note of the 'correct' pronounciation in a glossary or short mention of it in the text would suffice, like mentioned. as it is, it reads very phonetically, and it's just something i might get tired of seeing a thousand times. just my opinion, of course. i don't have a problem with the name, per se, just in its extended form i can see it being, well, annoying after seeing it several times, at least to me.

i'm funny about names, though. some people are vastly more accomodating, and that's great. i know what i like, though. it's prejudiced as hell, but if your main character is named 'daryl', i 100% guarantee i won't read it, i loathe that name to no end. i can't stand the words 'booger,' 'fart,' 'turd' or 'snot,' either. those are sure-fire ways to turn me off, and it's really not too different with name construction, either. that's why i say i wonder if more people will like the name as it is, hate it, or not care one way or another. your call, but i vote for the shorter name. :)

you saying you didn't care for the type of openings i suggest doesn't come as much of a surprise to me. i don't mean for it to be a bash of my own, but i think you're a generation removed from myself and maybe that has to do with our personal tastes of such things. not just you and i, but generations in general may have their own preferences for beginnings. growing up on star wars, MTV, beer commercials, indiana jones, video games like 'mortal kombat' and basically entertainment that jumps right in with action has biased our ideas of what we like. not saying your generation is slower in a negative way, just that maybe your generation grew up cutting its teeth on things that had a longer lead-in than what we impatient, attention-deficent frankensteins slavering for sensory overload, big boobs, big explosions, and better 'effects' are used to. (indeed, at the time, your entertainment was probably faster than your parents', etc..) also, it depends on the audience you're catering to: mature audiences will accept a longer ramp-up and like more drama, while kids might want more action, less romance/more sex.

it's impossible to please everyone, so i don't even try. pleasing myself is task enough. if i do that, i reckon *someone* will like it. i'm in that point in writing where my ramp-up times are becoming longer and i'm concentrating more on the drama and depth of the characters than spiffy action sequences, futuristic inventions, and how clever my names are.

maybe plunging in or waking in is also a way to identify with the reader, too. that is, certain people jump right into something and getting their hands dirty before figuring everything out, so they may like the 'hit the ground running' approach, while those who have to read all the instructions, ask questions and be nearly proficient with something before attempting it might like a slow progression. or you may be like me, who studies a thing until bored then gets involved to rescue his interest, meaning a very short backstory leading into a situation leading into conflict where i already know at least the characters' names. if nothing happens by chapter two, though, i'm bored. :)

05-18-2005, 02:04 PM
I don't mind weird names myself provided they are not excessively long and all very similar to each other (a fault to which Diane Duane is prone). If I can tell them apart at a glance I'm not bothered whether I could actually say them or not.

Yes three r-s represents a rolling sound - and three u-s is basically "ow" very drawn-out and echo-y. It's a very good point that even if the humanoids started out by trying to say the name properly they would soon get lazy and shorten it to an approximation (which is of course why we say "Dutch" rather than "Deutsch").

[Even the Urrrchauuu do so to some extent. The main Urrrchauuu character is properly called Shoh Shoh but he himself, and his people, usually shorten it to Shohsh.]

You will hate their names I'm afraid - for the names of a lot of the humanoids have apostrophes in, representing glottal stops and tongue-clicks for which we don't have regular characters. I wonder if this isn't another cultural thing - I suspect Europeans have a much higher tolerance of apostrophes since so many e.g. French and Irish surnames do in fact have apostrophes in them: whereas conversely Americans seem very fond of hyphenated Jo-Ann type names which look clunky and ugly to European eyes.

And yes I'm afraid there is one occurence of the word "turd" - where someone is commenting under their breath on the possibility that an Urrrchauu will eat (and digest) them!

Booger btw seems to be a purely American expression - the first time I saw it it took me some time to work out what it was. Fart and snot are words which crop up quite commonly as metaphors in casual British speech and are therefore likely to be seen in British novels - in such expressions as "snotty-nosed" (which for reasons I'm not sure of means "arrogant and full of himself") and "as much use as a fart in a collander."

It's not that I don't like action starts - the WIP begins halfway through a very athletic circus performance, and in fact I have a habit of beginning poems and even stories in the middle of a sentence! But the action is rarely what interests me about a story: and like you I have certain keywords which probably mean I'm not going to read something. Names like Brightblade are one - "tavern" is another. "Tavern" is a posy word which tells you the writer is probably trying to sound olde worlde without actually having much feel for the period (unless the period is about 1780, in which case it's appropriate). It's the sort of word which here is used by faceless companies who think that plastic fake Tudor beams and thatched juke-boxes will give a pub a traditional ambience.

[I agree with you, Daryl is a horrible name - though not IMO quite as bad as Darlene. Apologies to anybody who is called either of these things!]

Incidentally, I only just now noticed your remark that Brightblade might "run screaming like a girl."

When I was 15 and a guy tried to grope me I stuck my very long and pointed fingernails into his flabby arm and twisted until his eyes crossed. When I was 20 and a guy made a half-hearted attempt to rape me I said "Don't be bloody daft" and marched straight at him until his nerve broke and he nearly fell over himself scrambling to get out of my way. When a guy grabbed one of my school-friends, forced her backwards into a doorway and French-kissed her she bit through his lip until her teeth met. When another school-friend was trapped in a confined space by a knife-wielding thief she snapped his wrist. When a guy groped my aunt (the children's illustrator Margery Gill) way back when in the mid 20th C, she stubbed her cigarette out on the back of his hand. A friend in her 20s was recently threatened by a guy who actually *had* raped her when she was much younger, and she trapped his balls between the prongs of a metal splint which she happened to be wearing, and twisted till they almost came off. A friend in her 50s was accosted by a flasher and she said "Put it away: nobody but you wants to play with it," and she remained cool even when a demented ex pulled a gun on her. Many of the teenage girls I meet nowadays seem to be heavily into martial arts and their casual conversation is all about gouging eyeballs.

So why do you think that what a girl would do is run screaming?

05-18-2005, 02:36 PM
PS I've been trying to work out why the name "Joe Brightblade" is such an absolute turn-off to me. If the character was simply called Brightblade as a first name that wouldn't worry me so much - it would just mean that the person comes from a society which is fond of names like that. But "Joe Brightblade" suggests the person comes from a society which uses what we would think of as ordinary names, and therefore Brightblade must be a nickname attached because of some personal characteristic. And what could it actually mean? "I polish my weapons"? You would hope that most people in a knife-wielding culture would do so.

[It would be an apt nickname for the owner of the only steel blade in a Bronze Age village - but the name Joe and the word tavern suggest a much more recent period.]

So it suggests that the character gave *themselves* an almost meaningless nickname because they thought it sounded cool, and are therefore a thundering poseur - or that the author gave them a meaningless nickname because the *author* thought it sounded cool. And if the author gives a character a name just to make them sound cool, that means that character is probably a Mary Sue.

It's like New Age authors who give themselves names like Silver Ravenwolf. Raven Silverwolf could conceivably be a real Native American name (there's a New Age write of NA extraction who really is called Songbird) - but what the hell would a Ravenwolf be? It's a meaningless name chosen in order to sound cool, and it suggests that the owner is (mentally if not literally) about 17.

05-19-2005, 07:32 AM
i say that because girls, not fifty year old women, stereo-typically run screaming from what scares them.

'joe brightblade' sounds like the author is trying to be cute, to me, perhaps sarcastic.

05-19-2005, 11:16 AM
Note the word "school-friend." Only three of the people I mentioned were over 20 at the time, and only one was over 30.

[This may again be an example of cultural confusion - Americans call university "school," don't they, so I suppose in the US a school-friend could be in their early 20s - but here school refers only to somewhere you go at 18 or less, and usually at 16 or less.]

Ideas of women as feeble mostly have their origin in the Victorian era when women were liable to faint if upset - this was due to the fashion for wearing very tight corsets which did strange things to their blood-pressure. But even in the Victorian era healthy, girlish exercise meant spending hours swinging heavy clubs round your head (read some Victorian girls' magazines some day).

In my experience, girls usually scream and then hit or kick something or someone. Some girls - and some boys - if they are not naturally aggressive scream and *freeze*, but in my entire life I do not think I have ever heard of a real incident where a woman of any age ran away from anything, except for things like the tsunami or the 9/11 blast when everyone in a crowd was running to get away from a disaster.

There have been periods when it was fashionable for women to act feeble and fluttery, but throughout history there have also been plenty of women soldiers and women toughs and even women mass-murderers. It's very disturbing to find an apparently intelligent person in the 21st C - and somebody who writes SF, and should be looking at how things are and how they may be, rather than how they were in 1930s pulp fiction - who can still churn out such mindless stereotypes.

I know you and brokenfingers were using Brightblade sarcastically - but you're using it sarcastically because it *is* typical of a sort of cliché fantasy - and even as a sarcastic spoof it would turn me off, because it is seldom interesting to read a spoof of a type of story which you wouldn't have read anyway - it means listening to a lot of in-jokes you don't get.

And if the author is trying to be cute, cute is itself a massive turn-off.

05-19-2005, 05:31 PM
I stated that the oft-used writer's excuse of an unpronounceable name was tripe because it's become a cliche in speculative fiction.

05-19-2005, 08:52 PM
WH, do you find people around you walking on eggshells afraid of saying something for fear of being corrected by you? sorry, can't do that: if anyone can't accept the spirit in which something is written, defending it is usually pointless. invariably there has to be someone who feels like correcting every statement someone makes regardless of the spirit it was made in by providing a lifetime of examples to the contrary. i've come to expect that on a message board, *any* message board. i hate to say it, i honestly do hate saying it because it's something typically said to *me*, but, jeez, can ya lighten up a little bit and not take everything so seriously? as far as intelligence goes, humour is one great element of it, no? at least the vast majority of people i know who i consider smart have a sense of humour and see things, even cliche statements which aren't necessarily true but convey a message, for what they are without instigating a diatribe. (then again, i find the ability to retain and regurgitate facts having little to do with intelligence. for me, those who have some polymath skills are the ones i rely on to exlimplify intelligent reasoning. too, i know quite a few educated people who are dumber than a box of rocks. but, please, no history on how smart rocks can be, eh? lol.) one of the great failings of SF as far as i'm concerned is authors who have no humour in their stories, as if nothing humourous ever happens in conversation or in a situation in space. i reckon it's because a lot of writers view humour as too subjective and hard to write. the hobbit and h2g2 is filled with humour, though i don't expect every book to be like that... but, adding in a joke or gag or two here and there doesn't hurt, eh?

DK, that's how i initially understood your 'tripe' response to be. then, on the second reading, i saw where there may have been some merit to WH's response, though i wasn't entirely convinced. i probably would have reacted much the same way, albeit with a tad less vitriol just to be on the safe side. i wouldn't say 'speculative' fiction, though, as i've found just as many, nay, perhaps even more, unpronouncable names in epic fantasy than in space opera-type sci-fi. using apostrophes in SF is just so, ah, 'star trek' to me. to each their own, of course, i just find such names to contain a certain amount of disingenuousness to me. that is, a lot of writers seem to do it not as a way to open up an alien language's possibilities as much as just a cheap way of showing differences and the fact that everyone else seems to be on the same bandwagon only adds fuel to the idea. and, yeah, there's probably some merit to my americanized eyes viewing apostrophes with less appreciation than europeans. i say that knowing most of the writers on these boards are americans who are overly quick to try and seem smarter than they really are linguistically by tossing in apostrophes with reckless abandon, while the rest of their story is just as rote as you can get. i don't automatically drop a book where the author uses a little linquistic play as long as it's not overdone and the rest seems to support that abandon with good writing (note that good writing doesn't always means the writer is particularly intelligent, heh heh).

it's just one thing i look for, that's all. apostrophes can be just as much a sign of something i don't want to read as much as the back matter suggesting storylines i'm not interested in. the author felt it good enough to write it, the agent and editor had enough faith in it to sell, and i assume there are more people out there who don't care one way or another about it, so clearly i'm in the 'wrong' here. by the same token, i'm less than impressed with what people buy and read on average, so trying to be just like them has limited appeal (and probably limited publishing potential, but, oh, well, so it goes).

as an aside, i always wondered why chewbacca couldn't speak. he's obviously intelligent, has lips, teeth and a tongue. basically, there's not a single reason why he couldn't speak the same language as everyone else. even if his lip muscles didn't exist, a person can still speak to a great extent without them. even the expanded universe has wookies who can speak. hm, never did grasp that.

05-19-2005, 10:02 PM
Perhaps a better term would be "trite." "Tripe" does have a confrontational aspect to it. :)

05-20-2005, 02:31 AM
Dave - the thing is, unpronounceable words may or may not be a cliché (maybe we have different literary tastes - but I don't remember ever seeing it in any story I've read in the last 20 years) but if it turns up a lot it turns up a lot because a lot of people realize that it's what would really happen, if we meet intelligent aliens. You might as well say that the assumption that the vacuum of space will be empty and cold is trite. It turns up a lot because it's how things *really are* - and since we can't even pronounce some of the languages of other human beings it's a fair bet that not being able to pronounce the languages of aliens is also how things really are. And if we're trying to be realistic, we can't just make outer space warm and full of blancmange just because somebody is tired with the cliché idea that the world is like it is. [In fantasy, yes - but not in hard SF.]

Thinking about it, having someone say "I can't make anything of this person's name except a growling noise, so I'm going to call her Growl" is almost exactly equivalent to the Ancient Greeks calling other nations Barbarians because all they could make of their language was bar-bar-bar.

Preyer - I am in fact a writer of humorous stories. But persistent sexism isn't really any funnier than persistent racism would be, is it? You'd already made it clear from all those obviously very seriously-intended remarks about how real men do this and real men do that and women can't possibly understand how real men think etc. etc. that you really *are* a sexist and that the remark about girls running screaming reflected your real atittudes. I was actually very surprized to learn that you are from a younger generation than me - based on those attitudes, I had assumed you were in your late 50s.

[For the record, I object equally strongly to women who make sexist remarks about men.]

You may not realize or really intend it, but judging from the posts I've read you are continually making statements the subtext of which is "Unless you are male, and conform to my hyper-macho idea of what a male should be, you're inferior." If you keep telling people that they're inferior that makes them feel bad, humiliated, isolated etc. etc. and if you go round making people feel like that then of *course* they're going to get annoyed and tell you off. You may recall, it's not just me - you made fallenangelwriter far angrier than I was.

And I don't see why I shouldn't say that I wouldn't read a story with a character called Brightblade - it's certainly no sillier than not reading one with a character called Daryl (with which I entirely sympathize btw). It perhaps really belongs on the thread about "stories which shouldn't be written" but it's one of those key signs which indicate that the story is probably a Mary Sue and almost unreadable.

Another major danger-sign is any story centred around a heroine who is first seen sitting in front of a mirror brushing her luxuriant silver curls back over her creamy shoulders (having recently tried and failed to read Illusion).

Hands up anybody who doesn't know who Mary Sue - and her partner-in-crime Marty-Stew - are?

Oh yeah - Chewbacca. Yes he has a human-looking mouth, but so do apes and *they* can't speak - and it's not that they lack the intelligence to do so, because they can be taught quite complex sign-language. You hafta have the right vocal chords as well as the right shape of tongue and palate.

But I agree that the whole thing about Chewie not speaking was lazy and an obvious plot-device. OK he might well not be able to pronounce human language - but he was clearly an intelligent person who *understood* language and also could see and could manipulate a keyboard etc. so in reality you would expect him to use a voice synthesizer, or write/type what he wanted to say.

05-20-2005, 01:25 PM
PS your comment about people correcting you on every message board you go to etc. should tell you it may be something about your posts which is causing this.

The problem I find with your posts, apart from being so relentlessly sexist and prejudiced, is the way you write masses of really long paragraphs with no capitalization, so not only is there a huge block of text but you can't easily see where one sentence ends and the next begins.

The effect is rather like having someone come towards you talking really, really fast and waving their arms about. They might actually have something interesting and profound to say, but all you want to do is back away fast, and you don't really listen because you're too busy trying to escape.

[And going eh? eh? all the time feels a bit like having a garrulous drunk seize you by the lapels.]

Because of the lack of capitalization and paragraph-breaks, the mere sight of one of your posts gives me - and I'm sure many other people - instant eye-strain and an incipient migraine. Blurred and in pain is not a good state in which to approach someone's posts sympathetically.

You really need to sort this out if you want to get published. You may feel that if you get a book accepted then it will be the editor's job to insert paragraph-breaks and capital letters, and there's some truth in that: but I feel there's a serious danger your books, however good they may be, will never even get a reading because the look of them gives the publisher such eyestrain that he or she will just throw them aside.

07-17-2005, 08:17 AM