Sunday, 28 August 2011



With my own (Neil's) apologies to Lewis Carroll -- who’s long beyond caring now, anyway -- for so blatantly mangling his wonderful lines in the above painfully contrived headline attempt to explain what this is all about … the unpredictable. The conversation between the Walrus and the Carpenter in CARROLL'S LEGENDARY NARRATIVE POEM for Alice when she entered Wonderland via the Looking Glass, sums it up; intrigue and adventure into the unexpected at every turn.

We’re more than just a tad honoured that world-renowned Ann Crispin so generously contributed the following detailed and enlightening essay to BeWrite Books' blog. She’s nice and selflessly generous like that, is Ann ... unlike Captain Jack Sparrow.

Her latest book is the prequel to Pirates of the CaribbeanPirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom. It's the first full-length Pirates of the Caribbean novel, and it tells the fascinating and captivating story of just why Cap'n Jack hoisted the Jolly Roger. It was released by Disney Editions in May. The novel chronicles how Jack Sparrow, Disney's infamous film pirate, first met Cutler Beckett while working for the East India Trading Company, and how he went on to become a pirate captain.  See the cover and excerpts from the novel on HER WEBSITE AND BLOG.

What follows, folks, is a must for writers and readers in all genres -- and even those who tend to avoid genre-writing themselves.

Ann's article is not only about communication ... it's about satisfying communication.

AC Crispin is the author of many hot-selling science fiction novels, including several additions to prominent series such as V and Star Trek. She also created her own series in 1989, StarBridge, which centers around a unique school for young diplomats, translators, and explorers, both alien and human, located on an asteroid far from Earth. And that barely scratches the surface of Ann’s spectacularly popular work.

"In my science fiction I enjoy the theme of 'first contact' between humans and aliens. Communication is vital in this universe. In one way or another, all my books are about communication," she says.

Satisfying communication, community and subtly-crafted continuity to mutual benefit Я Ann. 

As co-founder and partner of Victoria Strauss in the admirable watchdog organisation and blog WRITER BEWARE, in place to warn the against the sharks in dem dar waters they and their team courageously expose. Ann is very much in tune with the struggles and dangers faced by authors, especially those in the development (sometimes desperate) stage of their art.

In this essay she wants to share some of the sealing wax and cabbages and things that, together, turn a darned good writer into a darned fine and successful author. 

AC Crispin is the author of the bestselling 'Star Wars' novels 'The Paradise Snare', 'The Hutt Gambit', and 'Rebel Dawn'. She's also written four top-selling 'Star Trek' novels: 'Yesterday's Son', 'Time for Yesterday', 'The Eyes of the Beholders' and 'Sarek'.
Ms Crispin's most famous genre work was writing the 1984 novelization of the television miniseries 'V'. She also writes books in her own universes, including her seven-book 'Starbridge' series. (The 'StarBridge' series has recently been bought by Ridan and will be released as e-books soon [watch this space]. If sales go well, there may be NEW StarBridge books to come in the future!) Crispin and SFWA Grand Master Andre Norton collaborated on two 'Witch World' novels.
AC Crispin has been active in SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) since soon after joining the organization in 1983. She served as Eastern Regional Director for almost ten years, and then served as Vice President for two terms.

Ms. Crispin and Victoria Strauss created SFWA's watchdog committee, WRITER BEWARE, in 1998. As Chair of this active volunteer group, Crispin has a busy second life as a scam-hunter.  Writer Beware is the only professionally sponsored group that warns aspiring writers about the numerous scam agents and publishers that infest the internet these days. Crispin and Strauss have assisted law enforcement in bringing several infamous con artists to justice.

She entitles the essay below:


How many times have you tuned into a murder mystery television show, such as Murder, She Wrote, and within the first ten minutes, been able to ID whodunit … sometimes even before the murder occurs? I bet a lot of you are like me – you can spot the murderer right from the beginning, and your only interest in the show from then on is in watching how Jessica Fletcher figures out his/her identity.

That’s because Murder, She Wrote is predictable.

While I’m sure some viewers never guess who the murderer is, and are genuinely surprised when Jessica Fletcher accuses the guilty party, I’ll bet most writers spot him/her early on. If you have a storytelling mind, it’s easy to spot such a predictable outcome – which is why you really want to avoid being this transparent in your own writing.

On the other hand, you know you have to provide the reader with enough information and clues so you don’t just drop the resolution to your conflict on the reader at the end of the story totally unheralded. If solutions to problems, and resolutions to dilemmas, come out of left field, readers feel – rightfully – cheated. It’s like watching Bobby Ewing step out of the shower. (Does anyone remember that ‘great’ moment in network television? Clumsy, contrived, and extremely annoying to the fans doesn’t even begin to cover it!)

Before we get to some practical suggestions on ways to avoid predictability, let’s discuss ‘satisfying the reader’. We’re talking about genre novels. Literary novels aren’t written to fulfill the same expectations as genre novels. In literary novels, you do have endings where everyone winds up dead, or miserable, or failing utterly. Not always, but sometimes.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes -- and ships--and sealing-wax--
Of cabbages--and kings--
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."
In a genre novel, it’s easy to avoid predictability if you have your protagonist lose and die a horrible death at the end of the story. Or to have your protagonist give up and let the antagonist be victorious in order to save his own life. But think about what that would be like for, say, a romantic suspense novel. The heroine finds her soul-mate tied up by the bad guys and being tortured. He sees her. She sees him. Then, panic-stricken, she turns around and runs out into the night, leaving him to his horrible fate, and lives the rest of her life alone and embittered.

 An ending like this is not at all satisfying to the reader … but it’s sure not predictable.And for the sub-genre of romantic suspense, it’s probably not salable, either.

And if we’re talking a mystery novel, it would certainly not be predictable to have Hercule Poirot or VI Warshawski announce, “Okay, I give up. I don’t know whodunit, and the killer will probably kill again, and I don’t care. I’m going on vacation.” Not predictable, but not satisfying, and probably not a novel you can easily sell.

Readers buy romance novels to watch the heroine wind up with her soul-mate. They buy mystery novels so they can track the clues and watch the detective solve the crime.

Romances and mystery novels are genre novels. Readers buy genre books because they have a certain element of predictability built into them. The heroine winds up with her guy, the detective figures out whodunit. The reader wants to go along for the ride to see exactly how it all happens.

Would you have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings trilogy as much if the One Ring had triumphed, Frodo had become a minion of Sauron, and all of Middle Earth had been turned into Mordor?

Okay, so now we’ve established that simply doing a totally unexpected thing in a genre novel is not the best way to avoid predictability, because that may well make the reader dissatisfied with the story.

It’s true that sometimes genre novels do end on a sad or poignant note. Science fiction and fantasy is considered a genre, and sometimes the protagonist does die. (Heck, I’ve killed off a protag myself.) When the writer does this at the end of a book, however, generally the protagonist sacrifices his or her or its life to achieve some kind of victory over evil, or the antagonist. When the reader closes the last page, he or she is sad, but satisfied, because the protagonist succeeded, even at the cost of his, her, or its life. This also happens at the end of spy novels, or thrillers … sometimes.

Editors tell me that books with happy endings sell better than books with sad endings. Personally, I often try for something along the lines of bittersweet, because it seems more realistic than having the protagonist achieve total victory. I’d call the ending of The Return of the King bittersweet, wouldn’t you?

(And then there’s A Song of Ice and Fire – which breaks all the ‘rules’. If you can write as well as George RR Martin, you can break them as you choose. And I have NO idea why you’re reading this essay!)

Okay, so I’m going to presume we’re all on the same wavelength here, and we understand the concept of ‘satisfying the reader’. So how do we avoid writing ‘predictable’ stories?

The best way I know to do this is by the rejecting the easiest solution, and effectively foreshadowing what happens.

Let’s use the ending of The Return of the King as an example again. JRR Tolkien could have had Frodo march (or crawl) through that crevasse in Mount Doom, pull the One Ring off his neck, and chuck it into the flaming lava below. Since that was the stated intent of Frodo and Sam’s long, arduous, miserable quest through Middle Earth and horrible Mordor, that would have created an end that was reasonably satisfying – but it would have been predictable. They did what they’d come there to do, ho hum, okay, good story, but not remarkable.

But instead, Tolkien was clever. He had Frodo FAIL.

Frodo succumbs to the power of the One Ring. He puts it on and is going to head back out into Mordor, presumably to sink into total evil and ally himself with Sauron. Middle Earth would be doomed if he’d actually done this. This is NOT predictable.

And yet the One Ring gets tossed into the lava anyway, despite Frodo’s best efforts to make away with this. Tolkien rejected the easy solution, and chose Gollum, all unknowing and unwilling, to be the savior of Middle Earth.

Not predictable!

And yet … both Frodo’s failure, and Gollum’s actions, were so well foreshadowed that we, the readers, accept these actions on Frodo’s and Gollum’s part. We know that the One Ring is a deadly seducer. We hope Frodo won’t succumb to it, yet we believe it when he does. And we have watched Gollum’s growing obsession and madness for hundreds of pages. We, the readers, have no difficulty in believing that Gollum would attack Frodo on the brink of the chasm and try to get the ring, using any means at his disposal … including his sharp, raw-fish-eating teeth.

When you write a subplot into a book, such as Gollum’s subplot, it must have a major impact on the climax of the book. Both Gollum’s subplot and Aragorn’s subplot (learning to accept that his fate was to become King Elessar Telcontar, High King of Gondor, etc, and thus rallying and leading the armies of Middle Earth to the Gates of Mordor in order to distract Sauron from discovering Frodo and Sam), majorly influence the climax of The Return of the King.

Some writers can write stories without plotting them out in advance. Somehow, instinctively, subconsciously, they foreshadow and reject the easy solution. Two such writers I’ve known were Roger Zelazny and Andre Norton. I have no idea how they managed to do this … but they did.

Personally, I have to plot out a story, and consciously figure out all this stuff before I can write it.

You should do whatever works best for you.

I hope this has been helpful. Feedback?

Many thanks for your generosity and thoroughly professional insight, Ann. And I reckon you can count on that feedback. Now it’s time to return Ann’s favour in our own small way, folks.

Check out her newly released Price of Freedom the subtle, immaculately constructed, beautifully penned and fun prequel to the early life of Capt Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean notoriety. You’ll love PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN; THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. And it's available pretty well anywhere you look in your local main street or online bookstores.

Happy Week. Neil et al

1 comment:

  1. Terrific post, Ann - and hello, Neil! Knowing what will keep your reader satisfied is so important. They want 'their kind of story' but they still want you to write it in a new way.

    On the subject of predictability, you must have heard by now of the experiment that established people enjoyed a novel more if they knew how it was going to end? As a writer that gives me the ab-dabs, but we can't ignore what it says about readers. Although it wasn't clear what kind of reader they were talking about. I imagine genre readers view this very differently from the kind of readers who like their fiction to ask questions.
    I'm off to tweet this.