The Heretics of Dune

I was staying at fuego’s the other night, and I was looking for something that I could spend a few minutes reading without too much commitment. The first thing I pulled off the shelf was Hemingway, but it was in Czech. An interesting project, but not the few minutes of entertainment I was looking for. Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert caught my eye. I decided to read just the opening of the book, to see how a well-known author constructs his first words to his readers. Then I would put the book back on the shelf and get on with my life, perhaps a little wiser.

I made myself comfortable and opened the book. The first sentence is a quote. Ordinarily opening with a quote is a risky move because in your head the context is there, but the reader doesn’t have a clue. So even a very dramatic statement is not going to have nearly the effect you expect. If the statement is very short, it’s not so bad, but when the reader has no idea who is speaking, not even gender or clues about how the speech is pitched, the reader will have to defer understanding the statement until he or she gets more data. It is just a bunch of words, waiting to be interpreted. A dramatic moment wasted.

I say “ordinarily” because there are plenty of exceptions. I regularly start my stories with someone speaking (though these days almost all of those openers die in revision), and other people do, too. My corollary to the above rule is “Only start with a quote if it has context and characterization built in.” Off the top of my head, the line “I don’t care who you say you are, you’re not going to see the King,” tells a lot about the circumstances, and even tells us that the speaker is probably not important, it’s who’s being spoken to that matters. It’s got setting, conflict, and is a clear marker that the following will be a fantasy story. So, it’s not bad. Still, is it any better than, “The guard’s armor squeaked with rusty joints as he stepped in front of the door. ‘I don’t care…'”? The second version says volumes about guard (and by extension the king) as perceived by the one being addressed. When the guard says his bit, we already have mild contempt for him.

An interesting project: find works that start with a quote that cannot be easily improved with an introductory sentence. Figure out what they have in common.

So, book review. Right. That’s why we’re here. Herbert opens this novel with a quote, and he most certainly has not found an exception to the above rule. I started right off with a feeling of disorientation. That feelilng did not go away. Heretics of Dune is a textbook example of how not to start a novel. I was bombarded with made-up words, names of people and organizations, leading statements that went nowhere, things left understood between characters without letting me in on it, and on and on. I read chapter 1 with a giant WTF?! hovering over my fizzing head.

It’s probably a good time to point out that I’ve read the book before. And I’m still confused. It’s been a long time, but I’m familiar enough with Frank Herbert’s universe that I made it through that chapter. I pity the poor slob who reads this before reading the many prequels.

It was, overall, a pretty frustrating chapter one. Chapter two wasn’t much better. By chapter three we were meeting new characters that don’t have histories or secrets we needed to know. And just like that I read the whole damn book.

Which leads to the central mystery: I only planned to read the first bit. It wasn’t very good. But for some reason I kept reading. This, somehow, is Herbert’s great skill. He hides things from me, both by not telling and by deliberately obscuring them behind jargon and dogma. (I ground my teeth every time I read something like, (slight paraphrase) “Lucilla understood the full scope of Taraza’s plan. Holy crap! That was the most amazing plan ever! The implications were astonishing!” and then not tell us what Lucilla figured out. AAAARRRGGGHHH!) He assumes knowledge I don’t have. He flatters his characters by saying they have qualities that their actions demonstrate they lack.

All that, and I read the whole book, even though I didn’t intend to, in three sittings.

So what’s in there that kept me going? It’s an interesting question. The writing itself flows well; despite a rich vocabulary the words did not get in the way of the story. I think what really kept me going, however, was a handful of the characters. Not all of them; the principle rivals were all crippled by flaws that undermined thier rivalness, and some of the good guys were too damn good. But there was real internal conflict in some of the characters, people fighting against known flaws and weaknesses. (To make things more interesting, some of those perceived weaknesses sound a lot like strengths to us.)

There is one little girl who comes in out of the desert in a circumstance that has ‘miracle’ written all over it. The local priesthood adopts her, and what do you know? she turns into a spoiled brat. It was nice to meet a character who will obviously be a major factor in the history of humanity portrayed with natural human frailties. She also had a knack for superpowers.

Superpowers abound in this book; some powers are shared by members of the various secret societies, while rogue superpowers manifest unpredictably in individuals (of proper breeding). Politics are everywhere as well, and the core theme of the book might be condensed to “people with superpowers wrangling over how to rule the rest of us.” Herbert, I think, would have disagreed; his good elite are the ones who still care about the welfare of the common man. All the characters in the story are among the elite, however. Even one of the most ordinary of the good guys manages to grow spectacular superpowers (super-duperpowers) by the end.

Speaking of the end, I was running out of pages and there were still a whole lot of loose ends flying around in the narrative. People who needed to interact at length hadn’t even met yet. I knew this book was part of a series, but it was starting to look like this was going to be one of my most aggravating of peeves, the book that doesn’t even pretend to end. Happily, that was not the case. It wasn’t the best ending imaginable, but the end of one of the major characters marks a fitting end to this installment in the series. We get open-ended closure for many of the others — lessons learned, resolutions made, plans revealed — and I was satisfied with that.

It occurs to me that this might be the least useful review I’ve ever written, in terms of advising people whether or not to read a book (which, to be honest, isn’t really my goal). If you haven’t read any of the prequels, do not, by any means, start with this one. If you have read Dune, you’ve already decided whether to continue with the series. I’m guessing that if you did read Dune it frustrated you, but you read the rest of the series anyway, for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on, and you’re glad you did.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.


First Person

I was reading a short story the other day, and for the first two pages I was entirely frustrated. I was trying to form a picture of the scene, and while I had a couple of descriptive comments about the narraror, I was missing a really, really important fact. I didn’t know the narrator’s gender. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, but this time it did. Of course, to cause that confusion one must write in the first person.

I habitually start new stories in the first person. Many of the stories I submit are still in that voice. I have yet to sell a story for actual cash money that is told in the first person (not that I’ve sold much in third person, either). I don’t think this is a matter of editorial bias, and I’m skeptical about many of the reasons editors and other writers cite. For me, it boils down to this. I can write “I” and save myself a whole lot of work on characterization. I know who I am. The problem is that you don’t. That’s surprisingly easy to overlook. While I think I’m getting intimate, the reader is saying, “who the hell is this?”

Most of the time first person is just the author being lazy.

Not always, I must hasten to add. The Monster Within cannot be told except in first person. In this case, however, the narrower perspective is all about establishing character. It’s about learning who Hunter is as Hunter does.

Tonight I’m working on a story I’m supposed to be holding until I get my almost-done work sent out. It’s in the first person. The first paragraph makes sense in first person, and as planned the end will justify first person as well. But the story is expanding, and the benefits of first person are getting lost in the story. That’s the trap, I think. As storytellers, we want to speak directly to the audience at the start of the story, to set the stage, and again at the end, a debriefing of sorts. For the rest of it, the reader can benefit from descriptions of our main character from outside. By getting away from the narrator’s perspective we can see the narrator much more clearly.

So, here’s my humble advice for writers everywhere, should you choose to accept it. Always use third person unless: 1) It is fundamentally necessary to the story that it be told in the form of a journal. 99% of all stories told this way don’t have to be, so if you think this applies to you, you’re probably wrong. 2) The narrator MUST speak directly to the audience. See Princess Bride. 3) The narrator is a liar, or at least you want the audience to consider that possibility. This can include self-deception. See Catcher in the Rye. 4) Your name is Emma Bull, and your novel is called Bone Dance.

First person does not make the story more intimate, but it definitely narrows the perspective. Use with caution.


It Goes Without Saying

Last night I set up the new home for the novel It Goes Without Saying, the latest masterpiece by promising young author Edgar Pildrot. What? You’ve never heard of him? Not a surprise, I suppose, as his epic has not been published yet. It hasn’t even been written, in fact. That’s where you come in. That’s right, dear reader, you can be Edgar Pildrot — or at least a part of him. Chapter 5 is under way, Damien and Alice are on the run from mysterious people dressed all in black, and the only thing that’s missing is what happens next. It could be anything, but it will likely be a bit odd.

If you would like to have a hand in determining the fate of our heroes, pop on over and sign up! (Or, just ask me nicely and I’ll create your account.) Once I’ve given you book-authoring powers, you will be able to add your own two cents to the embryonic novel. There are only two rules: Never use the word ‘said’ and every alternative may only be used once.

Of course, even if you don’t want to participate directly, you are welcome to hang out, read along and heckle comment. Take a look!

He Remonstrated, She Demurred, and a Project was Born

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she prevaricated.
“Yes you do,” he blaxtophosed.

As I was writing that last episode, I got an idea. Ideas come in a wide range of flavors, and many of them are undercooked. I’m counting on you guys to make this idea fully-baked. I think there are enough regulars now to make something like this work. Group fiction. Silly group fiction, anchored on a bit of patently bad advice every writer hears at one point or another.

I propose two chapters of a novel, chapters five and ten. The writing should be reasonable but for one rule: no word for verbal utterance can be used more than once. By chapter five our otherwise-talented author, Edgar Pildrot, will be scraping the bottom of the barrel. By chapter ten he’ll be reduced to wild invention to paraphrase ‘said’. Wild invention, I think, is something this crowd could do well. Perhaps also we should include a rule that no character can be described the same way twice. Forget names, they would have been used up in chapter one. Just a thought.

I imagine this would be a perfect application of some sort of wiki thing. I’ll try to figure out how to host one of them (I welcome any guidance), but there’s also the question of the story. What do you guys think? Would you play? How much structure should be there at the start? An outline of the novel with a little more detail for the relevant chapters, or is that too much? There must be some structure; I wouldn’t want a bunch of fun sentences that didn’t follow. Or is continuity part of the challenge? I wouldn’t want to stifle you guys too much. Where’s the balance? I’m figuring the group would write chapter five first, then chapter 10. Kind of a vegetables-before-desert thing, only in this case the veggies are tasty, too.

We also need a good name for the project. My first instinct was Outrageous Dialog Project, but that misses the import of the dialog markers.

So four (wait, five) questions:

Do you want to join us and write silly dialog?
Do you have any idea how to make the project work?
How much of the story should be predefined?
What should the project be called?
Something else?

Please give your two cents in the comments below. I will interpret the sound of crickets chirping as an indication that the rest of you have actual “lives” and stuff, and don’t have time for such silliness. I’m not really sure how many participants it would take to hit that critical mass of fun.

He said, “said.”

Every once in a while you see advice for writers to lay off using the word “said” so much. When you read work by people who take this advice seriously, it shows. Characters who “exclaim” and “counter” and “blurt” when really all they’re doing is saying something is the mark of a writer who has forgotten their own experience reading. “The masters don’t use ‘said’ all the time,” I have heard people say.

Yes, they do. All the time. You just don’t see it. Good writers use those alternatives the way that quiet people use profanity. They are words for when you want to be noticed.

When I write (notice how by inference I am defining myself as a good writer — pretty sly, huh?), I use ‘said’ to resolve ambiguity about the speaker and to provide phrasing clues, to put in a narrative pause where the speaker is taking a breath. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that ‘said’ is not a word, but punctuation. I postulate here that in the cognition of written language, that ‘said’ is managed by some sort of pre-processor, an arrow pointing to the character speaking, and by the time the text reaches the active story-enjoyment centers of the brain, the word is gone, in its place is an understanding of the voice of the speaker. The times I most notice ‘said’ is when it’s missing and I’ve lost track of who is speaking.

Still, I often find myself using a similar crutch. I will supply business to change the reader’s focus to the correct speaker:

Beth fiddled with her glasses. “That’s weird.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah.
Ed picked his nose. “You guys are just paranoid.”

Business can be useful, if it enhances characterization. If it’s just to replace “said”, it’s just a bad as

“That’s weird,” Beth mumbled.
“Yeah,” Joe agreed.
“You guys are just paranoid,” Ed whined.

A special subset of the ‘don’t use said’ crowd is the ‘never use the same word for a verbal utterance twice’ bunch. This can lead to some truly comic writing. (In fact, that gives me an idea… stay tuned. You and we and all of us, we have a project.) Generally I use the “business trick” when I want to name the reader before the spoken words, which can be helpful. For some reason I resist the form “Beth said, ‘That’s weird.'” and so forth. Part of my prejudice I’ll defend on timing grounds; I generally use the device when I want to slow the pace of the conversation. Still, there’s a limit, so the advice here about the invisibility of ‘said’ is directed toward myself as much as toward anyone else.

Meanwhile, what a great sentence: “‘Yeah,’ Joe agreed.” As if ‘yeah’ could have any other meaning. What the heck, why stop there?

Joe nodded. “Yeah,” he concurred agreeably.

So what can we conclude? Ed will be second or third to fall to the Kabin Killer, allowing him screen time enough to really annoy us before we cheer his downfall. Beth will last a little longer; she will almost escape but will lose her glasses at the critical moment, the only point in the film where there is any doubt about the outcome. Finally Joe will be the one to discover the killer’s weakness but too late to save himself. His demise will be heroic, as he leaves the critical clue for the others to find. He will be the last male to die. That’s what a few well-placed nuances in the dialog will do for you.