Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Few Words on Exploitation!

April 18, 2007
I recently finished reading the ARC of RAGAMUFFIN, my friend Tobias Buckell’s second novel, due out June 2007. The first was CRYSTAL RAIN (you’ll like it; go buy it; read it). Toby writes hard science fiction and it’s pretty great stuff. It takes place in a very distant future, way out there in the galaxy. Humans not only aren’t alone, but we’re pretty much screwed. Forty-eight planets are connected by thousands of wormholes, but the entire galaxy is under control of a race of beings called the Satrap, who meticulously control technology and slap down anyone—especially humans—who try to develop technology they don’t want used. In fact, much of humanity lives on a few isolated planets (including Earth, cut off from the wormholes) or in “free zones” allowed by the Satrapy. Many have “chosen” to be “pets” to other advanced races, such as the Gahe, in exchange for regular food and care. There are a group of freedom fighters known as the Ragamuffin and…

Anyway, the point really is that Toby’s a terrific writer, especially when developing worlds and universes. I find the strength of his imagination to be sort of dazzling. But when I was reading part of the book, I was thinking, “I’m not sure he exploited that as well as he should.”

With apologies to Toby—and I did warn him I was going to do this—I want you to take a look at the cover art for Ragamuffin. It appears that those three people are falling into a pit, machine guns blazing. The tough chick with the huge gun is Nashara (Nash) and she’s a sort of living, breathing super-assassin, in many more ways than one. They are not falling into a pit. This scene takes place in a habitat, a space station circling a dead planet. It is 20 miles long and shaped sort of like a giant Campbell’s Soup can. The interior sides of the can are where people live. It’s just like a planet, with earth and trees and plants and buildings. As the habitat spins, it creates an artificial gravity. As you move toward the center space of the cylinder, gravity approaches zero. Running from one end of the habitat to the other, through the middle, is a nuclear fusion lightline that creates light for the habitat, and will charge from one end to the other, simulating a day cycle. It’ll also fry anybody who gets too close to it.

Nash and two others are on a mission in the habitat, controlled by the Satrapy and their brainwashed human soldiers (the Hongguo), essentially to steal fuel for their spaceship. Toby’s universe is very realistic, not Star Trek-like. The wormholes shuttle you from place to place, but between wormholes your spaceship requires plasma fuel—a lot of it—and it’s expensive and controlled by the Satrapy. Nash and her two pals rescue two kids on the way, steal the big machine gun, and then, being chased by soldiers, need to get from one end of the habitat to the other. Rather than try to fight through hundreds of soldiers on the ground over 20 miles, Nash leads them to the center end, then they tie themselves together, push off into zero gravity and use the machine guns to propel themselves along the lightline, all while being chased by the Hongguo.

Cool, huh? I thought so. I was glued to the pages.

Except, as exciting as it is—and it IS exciting—I thought it could have been better. In a phrase, I thought Toby could have exploited the action more. (And to be fair to Toby, the last third of RAGAMUFFIN is a space battle that’s pretty damn cool).

Now, I write action thrillers. We all have our strengths, and writing action is probably my greatest strength. Paul Levine, who writes hilarious romantic-comedy-crime novels (highly recommended), once commented on how jealous he is of Lee Child’s ability to write action scenes that last 10 pages long. Well, I like Lee Child pretty well, too, but I’m not quite as dazzled by what he does because, well, that’s what I do, too. And although I imagine I could write witty dialogue that ran on for pages and pages like Paul, I’m afraid I would probably want to interrupt it with a bomb going off or somebody getting shot in the butt.

In an interview David Morrell gave years ago, he commented that he finally realized that what readers want was romance. And by romance, David suggested, he didn’t mean hugs and kisses, he meant romance in the way knights and chivalry suggested it—heightened drama, even melodrama (in its best connotation, not worst). Fiction isn’t realistic—not exactly. In real life, fights don’t last very long and a good punch to the jaw can end up with one person with a broken jaw and the other with a broken hand. Sex is in most cases not necessarily the upswept, long-lasting, simultaneous-earth-shaking-orgasms of the novel, either (well, okay, maybe yours is. Who's to say?)

I think it’s the writer’s job to exploit every bit of the story, using every bit of their skill (if at all possible). Above my desk I have listed five steps to creating tension and/or suspense. Number 3 is: Milk the tension. That applies to almost everything in fiction, I think. Milk the laughs. Milk the terror. Milk the sex. Milk the violence. Milk the romance. Exploit whatever’s there to the fullest.

Your readers will love you for it. (And as for RAGAMUFFIN: you’ll like it; go buy it; read it!)

Mark Terry


jbstanley said...

Thanks for the insightful post, Mark. I think you're right. Readers are looking for larger-than-life elements in every bit of every book they read. Now, that sounds like a mouthful, but it's what I look for too. I want books to feel gritty and realistic, but not so much that they remind me that such great adventures don't really happen to the average Joe (or Jane)

Mark Terry said...

I remember reading a column by mega literary agent Russ Galen, where when someone asked him what kind of book they should write, he said, "Big. And I don't mean pages or words." And I think that's what he meant.