KAREN TRAVISS

#1 New York Times bestselling author

Lowest common denominators: giving the reader some credit

Yesterday, perhaps later in life than I should have, I discovered the word pleonasm.

I love new words. Words have been my living all my working life, and, predictably, I've built a substantial vocabulary. So finding a new word is relatively rare these days, and it's a real buzz to rush to the dictionary. It never occurs to me to skip the word or guess its meaning, although I do try to spot the etymology to see if I can break it down before I open the SOED. That's just a bit of fun.

I assume readers look up words too. I make few assumptions in life, but I'd hazard a guess that anyone who reads fiction is also capable of using a dictionary, and probably enjoys words as well. It's even easier if you're using an e-reader. All you have to do is tap the screen for a definition.

I was thinking this morning of a couple of occasions when editors suggested readers wouldn't understand a specific word I'd used. (Not military jargon – just an ordinary word.) In my experience, editors don't generally read a manuscript that closely, so maybe that's why a few instances stand out. The idea of readers being unable to cope with one unfamiliar word or phrase baffles me. I don't mean solid pages of highly technical or obscure language. I mean occasional words, and nothing pretentious, either; just uncommon words.

"They won't understand that word," an editor told me. "Can't you change it?"

"No," I said. I don't pick words at random. They're specific to the situation, the character, and the scene. "Readers can do what I do – use a dictionary. It's obvious from the context anyway."

None of us has a perfect knowledge of any language. We all need a dictionary sometimes. Smart people know what they don't know and look things up; it's how we all learn. Much of my early education came from seeing words I didn't understand and consulting a dictionary, then reading more widely about the topic. And, of course, I don't know what other people don't know. Once you start censoring words as possibly being too hard for an unknown person who might or might not buy your book, then your writing begins a death spiral of sterility.

In one case, an editor objected to the phrase "stood out like the Eddystone lighthouse," on the grounds that American readers "won't know what it is." Look, if you don't understand what a lighthouse is, and how conspicuous those things are – their whole purpose is to be seen – then you're probably under seven years old, and grasping the term "lighthouse" will be the least of your problems when reading my books. The suggestion (from an American, by the way) that American readers were too dumb to understand an English place name struck me as pretty patronising. If you're an American, as nearly all my readers are, then you might not know where the lighthouse is (most Brits don't, either) but you know what a lighthouse is and why the character uses that term, especially as the paragraph expands on it. As the character is English, he wouldn't refer to a lighthouse in the USA. It's the right saying for the right character. And that was my criterion for using it.

If you read my novels, you know that I generally write plain. Each scene, as I said in my last blog entry, is seen through the point-of-view character's eyes, and expressed entirely in their language – every line, not just the dialogue. That's all part of building the character and putting the reader in the character's shoes. That means the language will vary in its complexity and vocabulary, but it will never be an exercise in elaborate style to show the reader how many fancy words I know, or purple prose for the sake of it. It's as simple or as complex as it needs to be to convey meaning. In fact, if you notice a style at all, then I've failed in telling the story and keeping you immersed.

But the occasional unfamiliar word in a novel isn't going to throw anyone. (Especially not in SF.) Write what you feel needs saying to tell the story, and don't second-guess the reader. They can probably handle whatever you throw at them. They're smart like that.

Understanding character and tight third person POV

My mate Jim, another writer, made a really interesting observation when he listened to the sample chapter of the GOING GREY audiobook. Like me, he doesn't normally buy audiobooks, but he was struck by how clear the change of character point-of-view was. He said that he'd be interested to know if audiobook listeners find it easier to understand tight third person POV than book readers; the POV changes can be very striking if the narrator can do radically different voices, as Euan Morton can.

If you read my stuff, you'll be familiar with very tight third person POV. It's third person, but so tightly confined to each character's observations, view, experience of the world, and even linguistic style that it's more like a constantly changing first person perspective, i.e. it's highly subjective and the focus is narrow, confined to only what the character knows, sees, or feels. I flag that up like a shovel to the face in every scene, via the POV character's attitudes, dialogue and thoughts. There's no "neutral" narrative between the dialogue lines. The whole scene is their thoughts and words, written in their style and language. And as the characters switch, so does the style.

Many writers do multiple third, and some do very tight third, but I do multiple very tight third with large casts of characters, as many as eight, and that means the reader has to do a bit of work hopping from head to head with each scene, seeing from behind each character's eyes. No two characters see the same situation the same way. They're like real people. We don't agree. We can witness an event and come away with radically different memories of what happened and totally different opinions on whether it was a good thing or not.

So there are no helicopter views in my books and no authorial voice. I don't have one. I only see what the characters see, and after 25 novels, I've refined that to an automatic method I don't even have to think about while I write. I just switch it on and off. If I ever need to step outside the POV characters' knowledge, then I have to use epigraphs. They're worth their weight in gold if you do tight third. They can also add a kind of punctuation to the plot.

That's my main selling point, though: creating three-dimensional characters. The story is how differently characters see the situation, and how differently that makes them react to it and to each other. Most readers understand that they're inside someone else's head, scene by scene. Some don't get it, though, and look for a common authorial POV throughout. Actually, some people don't get third person POV at all, let alone tight third or multiple POVs. Jim and I spend a fair bit of time discussing why some people don't understand that it's the characters talking and thinking, not the writer, and that not all the characters agree on reality.

I have no evidence beyond observation of unscientifically tiny samples (the proportion of readers who don't get third person POV and who also mail me) and trying to roll back from the end result, i.e. the misunderstanding. This is just my rationalisation. I think some of it might be how people have been taught, and some might be their own psychology.

Just so we're clear, this is how I write characters. The purpose of writing for me is exploration, being in someone else's mind and seeing the world their way for a little while. My characters aren't people I know and they're not me or anything like me. I don't need a soapbox, because I used to be a journo, and I have quite an audience, so if I had a message to give you I've got lots of other avenues to do that anyway, not least of which is social media. So characters for me are a step into the unknown – not necessarily fun, but always educational. And then I step out of them and go back to being me, albeit altered a little by the perspective of a stranger. Once or twice, I've been altered a lot by seeing a situation from a character's perspective, and been turned around 180 degrees on an ethical issue. That's unsettling. But either way, the books write me. It really is like being exposed to real people who tell you things that don't fit your own worldview at all.

Why do some readers struggle with the concept of characters having – literally – a point of view? Well, there are people who can't imagine that others don't think the same way that they do, and I mean can't, not that they're self-centred. They really struggle to imagine how someone else would feel. I'm not sure how much of that is hard-wired and how much is down to their environment in infancy and early childhood, but some people just aren't able to think that way.

Then there's poor teaching. Sorry to mention that again, but English literature is frequently taught by people who've never written in earnest and don't understand how writers work. It's much more pragmatic and dull than they think. There's also the artificiality of having to produce an analysis that will satisfy an exam board, and it's the vexed question of "what the writer means." Only the writer knows that. It's one thing to say, "When I read this book, this was what it meant to me." It's quite another, as I've said in the previous blog, to claim you can ever know what a writer intended and indulge in teach-yourself-psychology about a complete stranger. I get mail from readers asking me who the good guys are in my books because they can't tell who's right. I reply that I have no idea – the reader has to make up his own mind about people, just as we do in real life. We all believe different people. We don't universally agree who's right and who's wrong. If we did, the history of the world would have been very different and lot less eventful. When I get that kind of mail, it looks to me like the product of bad teaching. The reader's very aware that he's seeing the viewpoints of different characters, not an author's, but he's been taught to look for a "message" and a "right answer" placed in the book by the author, and he can't find either.

That's because there aren't any. Really, there aren't. The clue is in the weight of the multiple POVs. They all have a valid point to make. It is, in a sense, what I was taught to do many years ago: balanced reporting. I recall an editor telling me they felt "seduced by sin" because they found one of my characters sympathetic even though the character's views repelled them in real life. All I was doing was portraying a person who thought that way. Nobody thinks they're a monster, and one man's monster is another's saint anyway.

The nearest I have to a message is a stated aim to tell the truth in fiction. Theme isn't message, by the way. Theme is the reference point you use to make sure your book isn't rambling all over the place. (Although, if you've got the characters clear in your head, it shouldn't.) It's your checkpoint. Sometimes you start with a theme and stick to it: sometimes it changes because the characters go in a direction you'd hadn't seen coming; and sometimes you only find the theme when you're well into the book and it emerges by itself, but it's still only the "vibe" – not a manifesto, unless you decide to make it into one.

I accept that a lot of lit fiction does set out with some kind of message, and is often the author's viewpoint through the filter of a story. There's the much-derided stereotyped novel of the English professor or starving writer embarking on self-discovery. Personally, I'd poke my eyes out with a rusty nail rather than read that, let alone have to spend months writing it. I want something different from my existence, a radical change of scenery and something that might even change my mind about the world, a bit like travel. I don't want to know how it ends when I begin, even if I need to start with a rough idea simply to decide on an initial direction before the characters take over the wheel. In some ways, I'm more like the reader than the writer; I want to be amazed. And, of course, I also write because I bloody well need to eat and keep a roof over my head. It's what I do best, and as I get older, it's possibly the only thing I'll be able to do to earn a living.

So if you read a book and you think it's full of all kinds of viewpoints, some of which strike a chord with you and some of which make you want to boo and hiss the character, then you're probably right. It's the clamour of different voices. There's no right answer or hidden message. The sound of approaching hoofbeats, as they say, is far more likely to be a horse than a zebra. (Unless you're in certain parts of Africa, of course, but I digress.) Or maybe a cigar really is a cigar. I'm sure we could work up a book of analogies on that.

Anyway, back to the original point that Jim raised to start all this discussion. If multiple third person POVs, tight or otherwise, are something you sometimes struggle to distinguish from a central authorial voice, either as a reader or as a writer, it might be useful to listen to a book in audio after reading it and see if it changes how you think. If you do try this, let me know how you get on, because Jim and I are genuinely curious about the differences in perception – whether they're ingrained or the product of the medium.

Stone curries and the eye of the beholder

A book is a different thing for every reader. Really, it is. I don't just mean that readers have different opinions on books. I mean that the book itself will tell a different story to each person on the basis of their life experience, culture, and even age. It'll even tell the same person different stories depending on when they read it.

You might recall my blog about a reader who contacted me to say how he'd read a book of mine at two points in his life – the first while he was a young, single soldier, the second time when he'd become the father of a little boy. It was, he said, like reading the book for the first time again and finding it was completely different. He saw a different story because the "extra material" in his head, the experiences that were triggered when he read certain lines, were those of a man whose life had changed.

A book or any other work of fiction exists only at the point where it creates an effect in someone's brain. So readers write the part of the book the writer never gets to see.

There's no point in telling readers what they ought to see in your book: they see what they see, and that's that, because it's the end of a complex perception process. If they tell you they know what you meant and what message you were sending, it's okay to argue with that, because just as you can't tell them what they think, they can't possibly know what was in your mind when you wrote the story. It requires an understanding on both sides that however non-linear a story a book might appear to tell compared to something interactive like a game, it's still a malleable thing subject to many filters, both in the writer and the reader.

I understand that when I write, the most I can do is tell the story and then let go of it. Some readers know that they're seeing a blend of writer and reader that turns into something unique for everyone, almost like two genomes combining and then being further complicated by the expression of genes. Others are convinced that there's a single meaning and that the writer is sending a message. The fact that the message swings wildly between readers – this one thinks you're a communist, the next thinks you're a paid-up Nazi – tends to confirm the theory that everyone reads a different book, and it's not my view of the world they see but their own.

Whatever English lit teachers tell you, there's no definitive meaning, and unless the writer has explained why they wrote it and what they intended, then teachers don't know the writer's motivation and subtext either. With dead writers, they can get away with that. But a college lecturer once contacted me to announce that he'd written a feature referencing me and asked if I'd like to see it. It wasn't the analysis of the books that bothered me: everyone sees a book through their own filters, as I've said, and he seemed to like the novels. But he presumed to also write about my personal politics, which he didn't know anything about because they stay well out of my books, and he got them badly wrong. When he asked my opinion, I pointed out that he could have asked me easily and not attributed views to me that I actually didn't hold.

He wasn't terribly gracious about it. In fact, he was pretty rude, and made it clear that he believed writers had no idea what they thought. He seemed to have no grasp of the fact that many writers don't trot out their own politics in every book but actually create diverse characters with varied opinions to entertain others. It's just a story. It's not advocating a lifestyle.

A friend who's an academic from a different background said that attitude was fairly common with literature profs, and that they operated from the basis of having an opinion and then trying to prove it was fact, ignoring everything that didn't fit. I'm not entirely sure that's unique to literature, but I was at least glad that the guy didn't do a real job requiring hard data, like running a nuclear power station.

Anyway, I finally found a really good example of the malleable nature of even the simplest stories. Years ago, I came across an Indian folk tale about a stone curry. It's a common folk story around the world, sometimes known as stone soup or nail soup: a couple of guys arrive in a village asking for food and shelter, and then take out a bag full of stones (or nails, or other inedible objects.) They ask if someone can give them some onions to make a stone curry, because they have these amazing stones that have a unique flavour. While they're chopping the onions, they ask other villagers if they can just provide a few potatoes so they can bring out the flavour of the stones. Eventually, they have a huge pot of curry bubbling away, another villager provides rice, and the villagers sit down to eat. The two guys are feted as wonderfully generous. Then they finish the meal, fish out the stones, and go on their way to do the same thing elsewhere the next day.

Now, when I read that story, it was told as a tale of two con men putting in nothing of value but leeching off the gullibility and generosity of the villagers. Recently, though, I've seen it interpreted as a parable about the value of cooperation and sharing. I still struggle to see the story that way. The facts are the same: the characters do the same thing. There are clearly at least two stories here, probably more, but I can only see one, informed by my own life experiences and cultural filters.

And, for the record, the curtains were ******* blue.

(If you haven't seen that perfect analysis, the NSFW reference is here.)


Too real, too soon

I've had a few questions arising from the think piece I did for io9 this week on indie publishing, so this seems to be the best place to address them.

One thing that I didn't go into is the curse of the Real World Book. I've had many stories get overtaken by real world events. It's a particular curse for journalists who also write fiction (as opposed to journalists who write fiction labelled "news") because we're really, really skilled at extrapolation. Give us a scenario, and we can crunch all the variables around it like a mainframe to come up with a likely next move. It's based heavily on the data sets of experience, i.e. the older you get and the more you see as a journo, the more likely you are to predict things, and not in a Nostradamus kind of way. On a smaller scale, it's the same kind of analysis that enables me to create characters. So, multiplying characters together and factoring in all kinds of stuff, a news hack of the old school can make a reasonable stab at what's coming next – not enough to play the stock market with huge success, alas, but enough to say, "Bloody well told you so."

Anyway, when you're writing a novel, and you're linking significant parts of the plot into the real world around us, you run the risk of some real human being in the real world doing stuff that blows your book. Everyone's heard the story about the bloke whose novel about Bin Laden (alive) came out or was due out around the same time that the bearded chap met his end at the hands of SEAL Team 6. That's every writer's nightmare. Well, among several events that got in the way of Going Grey was the Snowden revelations. And the sound of ripping paper, or at least delete keys, was heard in the land.

There's a fine balance between writing the most realistic book you can and making yourself a hostage to fortune. There's also the curse of the politically logical: you sit down, look at a scenario in the world, and think: "What if that government reacted like this? And then what if X did Y, and Z responded by...?" It's a predictive habit. I believe it's one of the reasons why "formative causation" seems to be alive and well among journalists. One slow news day, you'll be sitting in the newsroom, trying to think of a story to follow up to fill the void, and you suddenly get the urge to make a few phone calls and check out the latest on a story that you filed maybe a year ago. It's a cold case, a dead story, but a follow-up is a follow-up, so you think it'll be fresh because nobody else is thinking what you're thinking.

But as soon as you make your first call, the spokesman or contact on the other end says, "You're the sixth reporter today to ask me that. What's started you all off? Is there something I don't know?"

It happened to me so often that I was pretty sure it wasn't random. I don't think it was paranormal weirdness or a collective unconscious, either, but I do think that journos read microscopic, subliminal signs all around them, they learn to read them in the same way, and then, when they find themselves in a situation where a number of factors occur at the same time, they all have the same response – to pick up the phone and find out what happened to Joe Bloggs.

Anyway, the point is that when we come to write fiction, as quite a few old hacks do, we tend to extrapolate real world events in such a way that we end up looking clairvoyant, and usually at the most inconvenient time. The relevance to indie publishing is that once I've finished writing and editing a book, I can get it through my own production system and on sale in a day, provided I get stuck in and don't get distracted. Yes, one day. Not one week: one day. Traditional publishing can get books out very fast if it really has to, which is normally real world memoir stuff rather than fiction, but we're still talking weeks or months even when they're going flat-out. The usual cycle for fiction is now often eighteen months, even two years. There are reasons for this, part of which is the practice of having to sell titles into the bookstores that now have two sales "seasons" rather than three, according to a sales-savvy editor I know, but it still means that writers whose stuff rests on real scenarios are left sweating all that time, hoping that they don't get caught by external events.

So once I've written a novel and it's ready to roll, I can get it on sale immediately. I can do the sequel as soon afterwards as I please – I don't have to worry about the publisher's catalogue or the sales team selling the book into a chain that has its own schedules geared to a much longer timescale. If I've written enough to publish an entire series in a year, six* books or more, then I don't have to factor in how long the books will take the publisher to feed out into the market, or having too many titles out at once. It's just not relevant when the titles will go on sale online and will always be on the virtual shelves as long as I want them to be, so that readers can work through them as fast or as slowly as they want.

And that's a really significant advantage that indie authors – and small publishers, who can be equally agile – have over traditional big publishing companies. I won't get into why having a critical mass of titles for sale helps increase sales, but it's a factor in visibility and building a readership. But for writers who sail perilously close to the disruptive potential of the world actually doing stuff that messes up their story, getting to market fast is a life saver.

(*No. Just no. I'm too old and tired now. But I'll keep taking the vitamin C and see how far I get.)


Keywords, caveats, and rough cactus affection

If you've been following me on Twitter this week, you'll have noticed that I'm a bit preoccupied with book categorisation. Which is why I'm asking people who actually buy books to tell me how they work out what a book is and if they're going to be interested in it or even offended by it.

You'd think it would be fairly simple to work out what kind of book you've written and which people are likely to read it. But the book world's not the tidy, controlled marketplace it used to be, when books knew their place on the shelves and librarians wore cardigans. The internet has brought us maximum choice and the ability to find what we want with ever more precise keywords, but with maximum anything comes a need to sort stuff out. And that's my challenge. It came about because of the way new categories spring up way ahead of anything BISAC (the book industry's categorisation standard) can get to grips with.

When you're marketing your own stuff you have to face keywords and meta tags sooner or later. Now, I already had problems working out whether GOING GREY was a techno-thriller, a military thriller, or military SF that wasn't really what I;d call military SF. (Blokes in armour, aliens, unfeasibly large weapons, and that kind of thing, of which I've penned my share.) I ended up taking a vote among my beta readers. Techno-thriller won, but this week I decided to switch the categories to SF/ Military and Thriller/Military after checking the titles I could actually see on Amazon in those sections.

Categories, though, are plain sailing compared to the keywords you also have to add to help readers find your book when they're browsing.

GOING GREY is about a lot of things – identity, friendships, corporations, soldiers, even strong female characters although it's primarily a book about maleness – but it's also about coming of age. Ian has to work out who he is and transition from an almost monastic life to something much more risky and unnerving in the adult world. So when colleagues were talking about "new adult" as a category, i.e. protagonists who are in their late teens or early 20s and starting out on their own for the first time, some of us thought that would fit our stories.

Unfortunately, we hadn't grasped that it had now evolved pretty rapidly into what I, being old and crotchety, call soft pr0n. One way or another, "new adult" had become a term in many readers' eyes for erotica. Now, GOING GREY is violent, full of bad language, and there's frequent blokeish obsessing about sizes of appendages and getting enough female attention, but it ain't erotic by any definition. The trouble is that "new adult" as a keyword can filter you out of some searches because of its erotica rating, which can cost sales. So I spent this morning revising the keywords into terms that were (I hope) accurate, valid for most search engines, and not accidentally misleading.

I admit being educated in a way I didn't want to be when I first looked at categories on Smashwords. (A sales channel I ended up deciding not to use.) I typed in some innocuous term like "marine" or "soldier" to see what suggestions the site threw up, and the more harmless words I added, the further I fell down a rabbit hole of erotic fiction. (Unfortunate choice of metaphor, I admit.) There were things I didn't even realise there was a market for, and that looked anatomically ill-advised to me. I gave up. I just wanted to find out how a nice girl like me could sell books full of blood, swearing, anxiety, betrayal, and willy jokes.

And that's another issue. I make a big point in the book section of this web site that I don't write YA books*. Most of my novels are M for Mature, and the ones that aren't are just as full of equally mature stuff but minus the cussing. But there are still people who might hand GOING GREY to little Johnnie because they've seen the name Karen Traviss on SW books, and that's all harmless, isn't it? I suspect Johnnie has heard a lot stronger language in the playground than in my dialogue, but I still worry about the delicate of sensibility passing out when they run into their first F bomb or colourful discussion about bodily functions. Should I stick a warning label on the cover? The consensus from an admittedly unscientifically small sample is that there was no point. Yeah, it's not like it makes much difference with games, after all.

Okay, there's a nails-looking bloke on the cover of GOING GREY, clutching a pistol and carrying a baton. He might or might not be turning into a leopard. However unusual the cover is, it still indicates an absence of unicorns or steamy sex. Caveat lector, as the Romans might have said, and those blokes knew what they were talking about.

(*If I did, I'd be much better off financially.)

© 2014 Karen Traviss