Helene (LToS) In Amazon's Top 5 Sci-fi Books In Canada

On 19th November Helene was selling well in Canada and in the top 5 sci-fi books on Amazon! By the time I got round to taking this screenshot it had dropped to #6, but it was still in good company with other woman-focussed sci-fi from Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments).

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Breaking Writing Rules / Chekhov's Gun

There is a difference between a rule and a law. In theory, rules apply in most cases but not all. Laws always apply.

(As an aside, this distinction includes an element of myth, since it’s impossible to know for sure if something is a law or a rule – science fudges it and claims more certainty, but it’s a fundamental flaw based on limited human perspectives.)

New writers are often given "rules of writing" or storytelling. But if we followed every rule then storytelling would become as static and formulaic as a Holywood thriller, where certain events and twists have to happen at certain times in order to please focus groups. To avoid staleness and predictability, some of the rules have to be broken. The end result may not always work, but it might lead to new things and freshness. It’s a risk any good writer must be willing to take.

A key element: you can break rules, but you still need to understand them and be experienced at following them first. You break them with intention and understanding of the effect, not randomly.

I’ll illustrate this with one example. Chekhov’s Gun. I know many writers swear by this. It's the rule that, if you introduce an element into a story, then it must have relevance. If it isn't used in the plot, it should be excluded as extraneous. In general, it helps lead to tighter writing and plotting, a way of cutting the flab from a story.

Can you see the problem, though? If all writers follow it, then it becomes predictable and boring. Stories become childish puzzles where the key pieces are obvious, rather than being immersive experiences.

Recently I listened to the audiobook of Alien Covenant (I haven’t seen the film, which may be different). Because I know about Chekhov’s Gun, it means when I am presented with writing that follows such rules, I have a key to predicting some outcomes, since I have both data and a formula. So, at one point in the story, a synthetic changed his hairstyle so he was identical to another. The incident passed without much comment, but I immediately thought "that’s a detail presented, so it must have some plot significance later". I guessed that there would be a scene where there was a confusion of identities between the two synthetics. And when one of the two appeared later, and the other characters studiously avoided even considering the 50/50 possibility that the synthetic they spoke to was not who he seemed to be (the kind of sleight of hand authors do to distract their audience, even though it defies internal logic), I immediately knew for sure that I was right. I knew it was the other synthetic; there would be a twist later where he was in their trust and could betray them. And yes, it happened just like that.

So you see, following all the rules can end up destroying the effect of the creation because it means unpredictability is lost. A rule is a formula, and a formula fed the same data will lead to the same results. Audiences nowadays consume so much storytelling in books and film and TV that – even if they can’t consciously formulate the rules being followed – they instinctively feel them through repetition. The more a story follows rules to fit the formula sold as successful, the less effective the end result is through repetition and predictability. And so the “rule” that some thought might even be a law, turns out to be less than a rule. Or rather, its definition reverses. Instead of “follow this rule in order to create maximum satisfaction”, it ends up being “follow this rule in order to create predictability”.

Thus it is for any rules that state something which seems inviolate. Smoking gun moments. Character arcs. Requirements for character development. Mid-book reversals. Denouements. Rations of dialogue to action. Order of events. There are always examples of successful works which threw those rules out, and seemed all the fresher for it. And I say that as someone who reads a lot of contemporary fiction, and has judged international fiction competitions. The two biggest problems with the bulk of things that get submitted are problems of bad writing, and problems of predictability and overfamiliarity. The latter problems come from following all the rules, all the time.

So rules are things a writer needs to understand and have experience with – but then the real fun can begin. Because with that understanding, the rules can be reversed in surprising ways, to avoid falling into the rut of sameness.

If you think I'm talking nonsense, feel free to tell me in the comments. :-)

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!

Sad About Green Spaces

I love green spaces. I do my bit to look after my local area (e.g. cleaning, removing rubbish, litter picks etc).

This was a park near me. It was green, though could have benefited from being enhanced with flowers and native shrubs. I'd have loved it if those kind of improvements had been made. Still, it was nice walking past it on the way to the library or a cafe.

That's all changed, and it breaks my heart. Instead of enhancing the natural beauty, a local group (FB / Website) worked with Munro Landscape to ruin it. Trees were cut down, diggers moved in, large areas paved. Would they leave the other green areas? No, every bit of grass was dug up. It looks more like vandalism to me.

The view now

Some of those responsible

Others who seem to support digging up open green areas, listed here

I've seen this happen with green spaces in other towns, where they're divided up more and more by concrete paths, cutting green spaces into smaller wedges. What about teaching people to respect the natural environment, not despoil it? Shouldn't children be taught to appreciate and enhance nature, not remove it as a hindrance? I don't like to walk past it now, and have heard similar sentiments from other people. What a mess.

Maybe they have plans to plant wildlife-friendly bushes and flowers and smaller fruit/nut trees, but if so, they wouldn't have dug up all the grass and put sand down instead of soil, so at the very least they are doing it in an arse-about-tit kind of way. Dumfries Council should have scrutinised the plans and not allowed them if they resulted in loss of green spaces in the town.

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