Interesting Writing Techniques: Ann Leckie And Holly Black

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I cannot write well if I’m not reading well, for I am a seething mass of envy and hatred.  Some people read great works of literature fling up their hands, and cry, “How can I ever write like that?”… whereas I buckle down, read harder, and think, “If I read their works hard enough, I will steal their souls.”
I never do, of course. Souls are very firmly affixed.  But I do pick up interesting techniques as I go, learning things I didn’t realize could be done.  And so the more I read, the better I write, for I learn the mechanics of writing from masters.
This week’s masters are Holly Black and Ann Leckie, both of whom took a pretty standard cliche in literature and turned it on its head.
Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl In Coldtown is about vampires, and it teaches us all a lesson about in media res.  Too many people think that in media res means “in the middle of the action,” and so you have beginning authors starting a story with “He shot her!!!!!  In the face!”
The problem is, we don’t care about the people getting shot yet.  People think gunshots are exciting, but seeing a random Stormtrooper get hit means nothing to the average person.
What in media res actually means is “in the middle of things,” and what Holly Black knows is that while it’s good to start as close to the action as possible, you need to build up the character as quickly as possible – so that we’re invested in their story, and care about what happens.  And so her lead, Tana, wakes up in a bathtub after a party, and as she works her way through her hangover to find her shoes in the clutter, we see Tana’s lifestyle – how she got too drunk last night, made out with the wrong sort of people to show up her kinda-not boyfriend, the regret and weird shame she feels.
Then she discovers all her friends dead in the next room, sucked dry by vampires.
That’s not the trick, though.  Because weirdly enough, I felt my interest start to drop as Tana found her dead friends, because I’d seen that scene before – the sole survivor, baffled, has to figure out why her friends died, and expresses confusion about what’s going on.  There’s going to be the inevitable Oh, but vampires don’t exist! narrative, and the muddled cops who somehow blame Tana for this event, and the clue that only she finds that puts her on the trail of the supernatural…
…and Tana immediately determines that someone must have drunkenly left a window open last night and knocked aside the garlic cloves, that’s how the vampires got in, and oh God she has to call 911 but she’s lost her phone.
That hiked my interest way up.  Because that single reaction hints at a ton of worldbuilding bubbling beneath the surface – okay, vampires in this world are a known danger.  Furthermore, clearly they can just roam around and attack parties at will.  But there are still cops, and suburban teenaged parties stealthily held when the parents leave for the weekend.  So how does this all work?  We’ve got a whole new world working here, and my interest jumped as I wanted to see what Tana did next.  Because even if what Tana did was entirely normal (hint: it isn’t), the world Holly has hinted at is sufficiently different from ours that we want to explore it just to find out how it ticks.
Note that cleverness here: there’s a lot of worldbuilding in The Coldest Girl In Coldtown, as Holly’s posited a mostly-working version of how vampires would work in a world that still remains similar to ours, but she does not deliver this via infodump.  (At least, not in the first chapter; there are infodumpy sections later on, but I think those are unavoidable in a world as complex and stories as Coldest Girl.)  Instead, she presents us with a situation people would react to in a standard way, and instead informs us that this place is very, very different by having her protagonist’s concerns be wildly different.  Which is subtle, and effective, and gets us through the first chapter – the most important point in any book.
Ann Leckie also has a different character problem to solve in her debut novel Ancillary Justice, which has been making waves because she’s got a great twist on space opera: her lead character is a warship.
Yet that’s an issue, because the warship is actually a centralized intelligence: it has many bodies, called ancillaries, that it works and sees through.  The trick is that the warship was actually destroyed due to some nefarious sabotage, and her protagonist is one of those stray bodies seeking justice.
Ann does a lot of work with language here, as she gets across the concept of an AI in a human body by using slightly formal words to describe everything.  There’s something clinical and compelling about Breq, who feels emotions but recounts them at a slight distance at all times – a stiff formality in reporting that serves to make Breq feel alien without robbing her of humanity.
Yet what Ann faced was an interesting challenge: how do you write a scene from the point of view of a fully-functioning warship?  After all, in her prime, Breq – or Justice of Toren, as she was known in her fighting days – had a hundred bodies working from a hundred different viewpoints, all analyzing and recording things on a scale no human could match.  And there’s a lot of ways one could write that to lesser effect – flashy stuff like having each of the datastreams be in a different font, to constantly flashing between bodies, to having some other jumble to represent the warship’s multiple point of view.
It’s a risky act.  Because if you don’t do something from a narrative perspective, then a warship’s viewpoint feels too human, and you make what should be the extraordinary mundane.
Ann found a great solution, though: scenes from when Breq was a warship are written from a mutated third-person omniscient narration.  Breq/Toren knows everything there is to know about the officers, as she’s not only lived for millennia and knows their family history personally, but also can read their biometrics, so Breq-as-Toren becomes almost a different setting.  She’s a warship, expected to keep her opinions to herself, and so what we have is Breq’s memories of the event as she saw other officers making history on her decks, and the subtle biases a living warship enacts to the people she dislikes on it.
(I should also add that having read through the entire book, I don’t necessarily know that Breq counts as a “she,” as there’s a lot of work with language and gendering in Ancillary Justice.  I’ll call Breq a she.  Even though really, she’s an it.)
So what we get is active, betrayed Breq in the current storyline, trying to work her way back to her homeworld, and a more studied version of her past where we get a sense of the political issues that brought her to this point.  Which is a very interesting, and effective, way to handle it – since we’re constantly flashing back to Breq’s old self, we get a sense of what she’s lost in being made singular, which intensifies the “current” segments.  (And if you’re interested, there’s an interview at the end of the book where Ann confirmed my suspicions of how difficult this was to write from a warship’s perspective, outlining some other alternatives she considered and discarded.)
This unique viewpoint is why, one suspects, Ancillary Justice is getting a lot of buzz.  It’s got some serious juice behind it.  I’d go check it out, if I were you.

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