31 August, 2010

Ask Mayhem: The First Person Fight

I got several good questions after my open invitation, but this one is tough enough that it's all I can answer this week:

Dear Mr. Mayhem: How should a fight scene differ in pace and focus if told from the POV of someone in the fight vs. someone only watching? -- Jessica

Fantastic question. The easy and most general answer is that the pacing of the fight doesn't change, but the perception of the fight and therefore the way it goes on the page does. It's a bit difficult for your narrator to remember who jabbed and who feinted when he's dealing with this at the same time:

Fig. 1 : Do I have your attention?

Readers will recall a previous post on how to pace a fight: the basics are to understand that a fight has a rhythm, like music. A good writer will vary the rhythm of the fight and control fast and slow parts to evoke the feelings he wants in the reader's mind.

This is a tough question for me as a fight choreographer, because in that line of work all fights are in third person: the point of view of the audience. So when I approach it as a choreographer turned writer my natural inclination is to think of the whole fight in third and then put myself in the position of my first person narrator. This is where things get interesting.

We all know the basics of Point of View (POV): first person shows us everything that the narrator sees and feels, and only that. Whether writing in first person present or past, this means that something as rawly primal as a fight should have a feel of immediacy. If the narrator is recounting the story of his fight with dispassion, you may as well be writing in third with a change of pronoun.

So in that immediate first, the author has to consider what parts of the action the character will miss because he has other things going on. You can't do this:

Bob hit me in the back of the head with the tire iron, and right away I couldn't see anything but bright flashes. All I heard was the ringing in my ears. Then he pulled out a six inch kitchen knife and started honing it on the steel.
Right? Our narrator can't tell you what's happening after a significant injury. Everything he sees and hears comes through the filter of more immediate sensations. For example, you might have him describe the first blow he receives, but after that he might only know that he's being rocked around like a rag doll.

He's also going to lose track of the fight if he gets enraged, scared, exhilarated, shocked, et cetera -- all sorts of things could happen that interfere with his ability to observe what's happening. 

And this is what might cause a problem for pacing. I think that any good fight uses slow and quick actions, like music, to create a feeling that tells the story. With a first person narrator the actions can blur, and he may also be unreliable due to his own perceptions and prejudices. I suppose if I could offer one piece of advice here, it's to treat that 'blur' as just another rhythm for the story.

So, here's the fight again from the original post on pacing. Like I said, my approach would be to plot out the fight as an omniscient choreographer and then work out how the narrator tells it.

Bob's fist just grazed Alex's temple. He swung again as Alex stepped back, this time landing a hook just under his ribs. He struck again, but this time Alex intercepted his fist with a large unbound manuscript.

"Is that what I think it is?" Bob asked.

"That's right," said Alex, "It's my memoir: The Day Alex Kicked Bob's Ass"

"Memoir? Fiction, you mean!" Bob kicked the manuscript out of Alex's hands. The cloud of papers masked his next kick, straight into Alex's solar plexus. Alex doubled over, wheezing.

"You... you animal," Alex said. "I never numbered the pages!" He sprang up, fingers clawing for Bob's throat--but Bob dodged aside and kicked Alex's ankle out from under him. His face hit the ground like a flipped pancake and the pages of his manuscript settled over him in a pile of 8 1/2 by 11 inch futility.

And now from Alex's POV in first person:

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blur, and a rough bony something grazed my temple--Bob's fist. I couldn't get away before he punched me square in the side. It was all I could do to get the manuscript in front of my face before he clobbered me.

"Is that what I think it is?" Bob asked.

"That's right," I said, "It's my memoir: The Day Alex Kicked Bob's Ass"

"Memoir? Fiction, you mean!" Bob kicked, and I was lost in cloud of 8 1/2 by 11 inch dreams. My dreams! His foot shot out through the flying pages and caught me right in the gut. White phosphorous stars exploded behind my eyes, and I sucked in air like I'd just run a marathon.

"You... you animal," I managed to choke out. "I never numbered the pages!" I dove for his throat, and that's almost the last thing I remember. He dodged out of the way and the next thing I knew I was flat on my face. The pages of my manuscript settled down on me as I closed my eyes. It was just like falling asleep in a snowstorm of futility.

That was fun--looking forward to more good questions!

28 August, 2010

Reports of the death of my genre...

If publishing is as dead as a doornail, then publishing aimed at men is dead as a coffin-nail (which, per Dickens, is the most lifeless bit of ironmongery imaginable.)

According to nautical novelist James Nelson, "Historical fiction for men is dead." I can't argue much with him, at least in the US market. When we look at Amazon categories and agents purportedly devoted to historical fiction, what we really find are a bunch of romance novels set in certain time periods other than the present. As Nelson says, "You can write five books a year about Anne Boleyn and they all sell." According to the latest issue of Solander, he has now sailed on to the more lucrative waters of nonfiction.

A.L. Berridge, bestselling author of Honour and the Sword and all-around fabulous lady, is selling loads of books in the U.K. and has a sequel coming, but isn' published in the U.S. yet. The reason? Her book doesn't have a Big Romance, and Men Don't Read.

Meanwhile there's C.W. Gortner, charter member of the so-called Historical Boys. His novels all feature a strong female lead in first person tell-all memoir style. In other words, the Historical Boy is writing for girls. Christopher's books are doing quite well in the U.S.. I have always suspected he uses the C.W. byline so that women will assume that he is in fact a woman who's using the initials in order to pass for male.

The worst part is, I'm guilty of being part of the problem. Before I got into the book production side of things I was not much of a book consumer. I read the same old Heinlein and Bradbury and Tolkien until I wore out the covers, and filled up the rest of my fiction reading with the likes of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Otherwise, when I bought a book it was non-fiction. Now I read a lot more, but most of it is research. My latest Amazon order includes a technical manual on mummy preparation and an Osprey reference book on French cavalry uniforms.

In my inexpert analysis, the problem of manly historical fiction in the U.S. is that we have a conceit that History Must Feature Americans. By this conceit I mean that we insist on producing movies like U-571, where the plot gets written so that it is Americans, not Brits, who steal the Enigma machine. Don't get Ms. Berridge started on that one!

Thus, American novelists looking for manly action--i.e. war--have a limited historical window to exploit. While British authors have all sorts of juicy swashbuckling wars in which to place their heroes, America begins in 1776 and all the romance (small 'r', not the genre) is gone by about 1917. We don't have the dashing Napoleonic period to exploit, that gave us heroic English warriors like Horatio Hornblower and Richard Sharpe. We get the Civil War and Jeff Shaara, and not long after that the machine guns come along and ruin it for everyone.

In between, we have the special historical genre of the Western. We have some great stories of WWII. But when we think of works of fiction in those eras, the mind turns to John Wayne as much as it does to Louis L'amour.

Is it simply that the story of American manly action is better told in film than in print?

For now, I'm grateful for the fact that there is more than one country where people read in English. Apparently some of the people in these countries are men, and women who do not need every book they read to feature a Woman Who Loves Beneath Her Station or a Queen Who Just Wants To Be Kissed.

I realise that my books may need to take on a different flavour to succeed in such markets, but one must do what one must do.

23 August, 2010

I'll take your questions now...

I've come across some good blogs featuring help for writers in the (blog) author's particular area of expertise. Mine?

I'm a gardener. A very aggressive gardener.

No, seriously, I'm here to help with questions on historical weapons and fighting skills from major army and fleet actions down to the very very personal. My practical experience comes from european fencing competition in college and a couple of black belts since then: but more importantly I learned how to fake it for fiction by working as a fight choreographer and operating a stage weapon rental shop. I've done gun fights, axe fights, cat fights (*mrreow!*) pillow fights, spear fights, fist fights and nearly every combination thereof.

If I use your question I'd be happy to include a link back to your website, or keep you anonymous, as you prefer. You can reach me by email: richard(at)saintmarksbody(dot)com or by commenting here.

Depending on the volume of questions (please, let there be volume!) I may post questions and answers up to once a week.

14 August, 2010

Ten Random Words that Make Me Happy











09 August, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Here's the roundup from a week in the Adirondacks with the family:

  • Fifteen fish caught and eaten, mostly perch (Fig. 1). My boss expressed surprise when I told him I was going to fish on vacation. I suppose I don't have a reputation for quiet solitude. I thought about it, and when I came back told him that he had me pegged exactly right--I don't have the patience to just sit and enjoy nature, I have to be waving around some kind of fish-killing apparatus so I can pretend I'm doing something useful.
  • 9000 words done in the first draft of my next novel. I thought this was a pretty good score, given that I spent as much time outdoors as possible.
  • Several firsts from the kids--my son's first captured (and released) fish, my daughter's first time paddling a canoe. Penguin sand sculptures and barefoot expeditions into the pine-bark carpeted woods.
  • One sighting the former most powerful man in N.Y. State, now convicted of several diverse and interesting influence-peddling crimes. I could not resist blurting out, "Is that Joe Bruno?!" as he entered a restaurant on Lake Placid, and the old man immediately whipped out a pair of sunglasses the size of virtual reality goggles.
  • Zero cell phone calls from work, as we were entirely Off the Grid (except for the brief foray into Lake Placid, enabling me to update my Facebook status to "...just spotted Joe Bruno!!!") Other co-workers on vacation who visited places with cell phone service (for example, Hungary) were not so lucky, and ended up calling in to several hours of urgent meetings from.
  • Also zero blog posts. (see "off the grid", above) But I'm back!