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Month: December 2021

4-Act Structure, Ballad-style

Posted in Plot

There are several ways to structure a novel, and I won't be going into them all.

The structure I use is called the 4-Act Structure (you can see more about it here (scroll down at the link — there's a helpful diagram). In essence, there are 2 acts of about the same length, followed by a mid-point crisis, followed by 2 more acts. Different stories and different authors use different structures, but this is what works for me.

I don't think of this for shorter works, since I don't write many, but other people do. It's just a good way to tell a story.

For a good example, take a look at this popular Child Ballad (#269) called “Lady Diamond”.

How espousing a cause can cripple a novel

Posted in Characters, Science Fiction, and Setting

Ann Leckie's award-winning trilogy (2014-2015) (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy) are well-written and interesting classic Science Fiction.

With one caveat — she is so concerned about making a modern cultural point (“what if there were no real differences between men and women”) that she undermines one of the tropes of her world.

While I don't agree with her premise (“what if there were no differences…”), I don't object to her use of it — these sorts of “what-ifs” have always been part of SFF. But let's look at how she instantiates it.

To begin with, the primary language uses only an ungendered pronoun, so everyone is referred to as “her”. This may seem, um, “brave and stunning”, but actually English is already headed there with the use of “they” as a genderless singular (e.g., “If anyone comes early, give them a drink.”) So, while the gimmick is a bit irritating, it doesn't really matter.

Here's what matters…

Counterfeit books as political stratagems

Posted in Business, and Publishing

Hold onto your hats… this is gonna be a wild ride.

Miranda Devine, author of a book exposing Hunter Biden's laptop contents, discovered that a complete counterfeit of her book — cover and all — had been listed for sale on Amazon and had, as a counterfeit, apparently reached #9 as a paperback bestseller in its genre.

It's not clear when she discovered it (the internal evidence of the articles suggests 11/30), but this article covers the issue as of 12/3/2021. To add insult to injury, the counterfeit claims a publication date one day earlier than the real book. It also states that it was released one day before the official version, contains 124 pages, compared to 224 in the real version, and is “independently published,” as opposed to being published through the Post Hill Press.

The pagan point of view in Icelandic saga

Posted in Characters

I've just come across Roy Jacobsen's excellent essay on the Icelandic Sagas as the “Backbone of Nordic Literature”, and I wanted to comment on it here.

If you're not familiar with the genre, let me offer a quick and somewhat simplified overview…

Oscar Wergeland

Iceland was settled by Norwegians in the second half of the 9th century during a period of strife concerning the various Norwegian kings and their ambitions. The descendants of the settlers themselves claimed that this was the primary cause, but later historians point to shortages of arable land, etc.

Johan Peter Raadsig

The founding population seems to have been mixed (Scandinavian, Scottish, Irish) based on genetic evidence, but culturally the Icelanders thought of themselves primarily as Norwegian settlers, and the language they used for their writing was Old Norse, once they started writing things down.

And they had a lot to write about. They were intensely interested in history, especially family stories and genealogy, and they kept records of their own settlement's important events. (This is, in fact, where the settlement of Greenland and the brief settlement in Vinland (Newfoundland) circa 1000 AD are recorded.)

(incidentally, they were also interested in self-government and decided many issues at the Althing, the world's oldest surviving parliamentary organization. This was where outlaws were decreed, punishments determined, and — most notably — the decision was made for the entire population to convert to Christianity in 1000 AD, from the “Red Thor” to the “White Christ”, as a way of settling various religious disputes — apparently the possibility of the Christian heaven after the forgiveness of sin appealed more than the impossibility of Valhalla for non-heroes.)

The Icelandic family sagas are now available in several modern languages and you can even pick them up most of them in one volume online.

The most startling thing for first-time readers of this medieval corpus is that many of these sagas are famous as world literature, and they read as surprisingly modern novels in most ways.

All of the above is just some context, in case you are not already familiar with the genre.

Roy Jacobsen starts his essay by summarizing one story (þáttr) about the complicated adventures of Audun.

Storytelling – as Old as Humanity

Posted in Characters, Heroes, and Villains

Given language, what do you use it for? Teaching moral tales…

I've often contended that storytelling is as old as humanity, and as fundamental a tool as opposable thumbs. Not only do we tell each other useful things about physical reality as we understand it, and make plans for actions, but we also talk about social reality — how humans behave, and why, and what the best strategies are for getting along with other humans. This is how we learn proper behavior. We use stories to illustrate these strategies, to explore what can happen or has happened in the past, and why.

It's no surprise that many of our stories are moral tales. How could it be otherwise, when we need to understand other people, and seek a model for our own choices?

There is often a “modern” complaint about black-and-white characters, that people are really more complicated than that. And modern literature is often fascinated by more “realistic” characters who act in, shall we say, morally complicated ways.

But the older stories: the religious tales, the ancient epics, the traditional ballads, the fairytales — all of these tell their tales using more archetypal characters — the young, the good, the well-meaning, the helper, the evil, the ill-wishing, and so forth. It's not so much that these are unrealistic characters. It's more that they are stripped down to their essentials of character and motivation, always recognizable.

Periodically, the evolutionary psych crowd rediscovers the persistence of this way of telling stories.