Plot and the starving person

Plot is a tricky thing.

I’m not going to talk here about constructing a plot, or what makes a good or bad plot (though a mystery plot is about the most durable and readable one you can ever hope for), but rather I’m going to talk about what plot does to the reader and what it means for the book.

Think of a story like a meal. It is an experience comprised of many disparate elements, each prepared and presented in many different ways.

Now, imagine that you haven’t eaten in 36 hours. How will that affect your attitude toward your next meal? If it’s not food you especially like, are you going to turn it down? Probably not. If it’s a T-bone steak, are you going to slow down and enjoy it, or are you going to wolf it down just like you would a bigass, greasy burger because that’s how hungry you are? Probably the latter, right?

That’s what plot does to you. A really good, clockwork plot creates an insatiable hunger in you to get to the next thing. And like a hunger, it’s simple: you want to see what happens next, so you keep turning the page, just like a starving person shoving french fries in their mouth.

Sometimes you’ll keep reading a book you don’t think is especially that great (DaVinci Code alert) just because that plot has made you that goddamn hungry. In that regard, you’re a lot like the starving person eating a meal they’d normally turn down. I have absolutely no desire to eat pickled pig’s feet, but if I was starving, I’d probably still wolf them down.

However, if you’re just reading for plot, then sometimes you can be like the starving person who’s sucking down a $94 meal just because that’s how hungry they are: you might be missing things.

A story, like a meal, sometimes (preferably all the time, but not necessarily) has had a lot of work go into it so that every element is an experience in its own right. If you’re just reading for plot, you might be missing the prose, the characterization, the ambience the writer is trying so hard to manifest on the page, all because you’re hungry to find out Who’s Behind the Big Conspiracy, or whatever the plot goal might be.

So sometimes, if you really want to enjoy a book that’s had a lot of work go into, slow down a little. Don’t read for plot. I’ve intentionally spoiled myself on certain books just because I wanted to see how it was made, or because I wanted to luxuriate in its prose or characters. I’m cutting that hunger off at the pass, just so I can slow down and enjoy the meal more.

A really, really good book makes you stop caring about the plot: suddenly you want the plot to have some stupid twist just so it extends the book’s length by another hundred pages or so. If you’ve ever had this sensation, it means that the writer has created characters or a world that are much more attractive and compelling than the desire to see what happens next.

Likewise, I’ll find myself skipping through some plotty books because the plot is more attractive than the characters or the world. I’ll actually find myself thinking, “I don’t give a shit about these people, but I do want to find out how this will end,” so I’ll skip past the, say, seventy pages about how the main character lived in the woods for a year eating tubers and nuts. I just want to see if he actually kills the guy he wants to kill, okay?

And if you really want to see if a book is more than its plot, go back and reread it. Then, theoretically, you’re not hungry at all. Still want to read it, to eat that meal? Then that’s a sign that it’s got something going for it more than your hunger. Trying to figure out what makes it so attractive is the next step.

Mysteries and unknowns

I was working on the sequel to CITY OF STAIRS the other day, and suddenly I found my work dribbling to a halt.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what would happen next. I knew what would happen next, or at least what I thought should happen next. The thing was, I suddenly realized that if I made the story do what I was thinking it should do, then the rest of the book simply couldn’t happen.

This was because the book, like most of my books, functions as a mystery. And mysteries function on not knowing the right amount of things. This planned development, I realized, would throw that delicate balance into absolute chaos.

I don’t consider myself a straight mystery writer. Mysteries, especially murder mysteries, have a highly codified series of signals in them, and I think I’d miserably fail at keeping to those. But the nature of a mystery is highly entertaining to read, and relatively easy to write:

There is a thing that is happening. It is not understood. But this person is compelled to understand it!

It’s like water down a hill. There’s very little you need to do to make this machine go.

The “water down a hill” metaphor is especially apt in terms of pacing, which makes or breaks mysteries: know too much, and all suspense comes bleeding out of it. Know too little, and it’s frustrating to read. It’d be like letting the Pacific run through a single dam, it’d absolutely destroy it. But you need to let some water through. You have to pace the “discoveries,” hitting certain beats and dropping in realizations so that the reader feels a sense of progression, of increasing knowledge.

This structure works for all kinds of story types. Harry Potter, at the start, was more or less a mystery series, in which some devious malcontent was causing shenanigans in this contained location, and someone had to figure out what they were doing and why. I count myself among those who felt like the books lost some steam the more they deviated from this structure, and suddenly Harry and the gang were sort of like revolutionary insurgents, wandering around the English countryside instead of operating within the tight, driven confines of Hogwarts. It was sort of like taking Clue except now it’s in the woods and everyone knows who the murderer is but they don’t know what to do about it or where they’re going. I realized Harry Potter was a series that thrived off of its confinement and tight structure, and losing those elements meant losing a lot of what made it compelling.

The structure also works in sci-fi extremely well: Fringe and The X-Files were both, structurally-speaking, mysteries, even basic murder mysteries at the start of their run. It works in romance, too: what bigger mystery is there than trying to understand another person?

Most soap operas function off of mystery, wondering who is getting up to what and what their goals are. Family stories like The Blind Assassin are even mystery stories: who’s writing the novel? What happened to this family? Why do they hate each other? Why is the main character so alone and unhappy? The same family structure applies to The Son, in which a family’s evolution is witnessed from multiple points in the timeline, so you have some idea of who dies and who leaves but you’re not sure how or why. This makes for remarkably compelling reading. “How did we get here?”

Really, any plotty book relies on the reader not knowing things and wishing they knew more. There are very few books where everything actually is as it seems right up front in Chapter One. The problem is timing the realizations, rolling back the veil on all those unknowns at the right speed.

The problem I encountered with my writing was that, if this unknown was unveiled at this point in the book, the rest of the book would become unfeasible. It would be a bit like Chekhov’s gun, except in the middle of Act Two someone would undeniably, verifiably confirm that, “Hey, this gun is cursed to cause its owner to shoot and kill the thing they love most. I actually have several letters of documentation from academics and government officials confirming that.” And EVERYONE would be in the room to hear it.

That would make it a lot harder for that gun to go off in Act Three, right? People would know not to use it – right? Wouldn’t they also, like, just leave? I know I wouldn’t want to stick around. You’d have to come up with some really tortuous reasoning to keep them all trapped there.

So I decided that, in the alphabet of plot, this was jumping from the letter E straight to the letter X, rather than following the natural progression, F. So I had to restructure it. This, surprisingly, took very little work. I had to ask myself, “What unknown really needs to get uncovered at this moment?” And I realized the answer was right there. From then on, I basically had to change it so that the body in the room was stabbed rather than shot, so to speak, because that would send the plot shooting off in the right direction.

A book is a machine that functions on momentum, like a flywheel. But if you aim it in the wrong direction, it quickly loses its energy.

A series of Jacksons

July of 2011, four months old:


July of 2014, three years and four months old:

three jacksons

It’s worth noting that, when I returned home at 10:00 PM, the alive, human Jackson was tired and in an especially grumpy mood, and was extraordinarily upset that daddy had won an award and he had not (and had also gotten to ride in A Real Airplane), so for the sake of the peace it had to be confirmed repeatedly that, no, daddy had not won the award, it was in fact Jackson who had won the award, and daddy had simply taken it home to him.

The things we do for love.

Shirley Jackson Awards



Well. I certainly didn’t expect that.

I had a great time at Readercon, but in all honesty when the day of the Shirley Jackson Awards rolled around, I’d almost forgotten I’d been nominated – partially because I’d met so many new, lovely, and interesting people, and partially because I’d just assumed I didn’t have a shot in hell of winning. Lightning doesn’t strike twice – does it? Certainly not.

So I was tremendously stupefied when I stood up to accept the award. It’s really a tremendous honor, and the SJA holds a special place in my heart for a bunch of reasons. I babblingly tried to tell the crowd that, referencing a somewhat tough period of my life recorded here.

Looking back on that period now, three years later, it seems A. like it was much, much, MUCH longer ago than it was, and B. I was being terribly, terribly silly. I did not know how good I had it, and even though I’d hit some bumps, it wasn’t even close to the end of the world. And I had no idea of all the wonderful, excellent things that were coming down the pipeline. I had no idea of how lucky I was about to be.

I wouldn’t have gotten those things if I’d given up. I was a newbie at publishing, and newbies get easily discouraged. They have no frame of reference: they’re like a teenager who feels like their first breakup is the worst thing to have happened in all of time. And the SJA, which came completely out of left field for me, gave me a tremendous shot in the arm. It made me think that maybe I should go on and keep trying this. So I did, and here we are – wherever that is.

This is not to hold myself up as some paradigm of effort. This is just to say, persistence is so much more of a factor than anyone ever realizes. I sometimes think good things don’t go to the honest or the just or the brilliant; I think victory just goes, eventually, to the person who sticks around.

Publishing, like a lot of life, is a lottery – something Shirley Jackson herself might find darkly humorous – and those who find success are the ones who keep playing.

Many thanks to Readercon, the Shirley Jackson Awards, my readers, agent, editors, and friends and family for helping me get here.

Loncon Schedule

I guess since I’m already posting my Readercon schedule, I might as well post my Loncon schedule too.

Here’s what I’ll be a-doing:

I Like My Secondary World Fantasy a Little on the Techy Side

Friday, 8/15 10:00 – 11:00

Some secondary world fantasies, like Brandon Sanderson’s “Alloy of Law”, Francis Knight’s “Fade to Black”, and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Shadows of the Apt”, have ventured into industrialisation. To what extent can the kinds of narratives common in secondary world and epic fantasies find a home in these kinds of settings? Is technological development less “believable” in a world with magic?

Django Wexler (M) , Robert Jackson Bennett, Floris M. Kleijne, Glenda Larke, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Carving A Legacy Among Legends

Friday, 8/15 13:30 – 15:00

Horror is a genre dominated by icons. Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, and others have paced the horror field for a generation. Does this hugely successful minority disproportionately demonstrate a viable market for horror stories? How does a debut author break in? Have urban fantasy and paranormal romance replaced horror to any extent? Does this correlate to the success of horror stories in the independent publishing markets?

David Nickle (M), Robert Jackson Bennett, John Jarrold, Lisa Tuttle, Ann Vandermeer

Imaginative Resistance

Saturday, 8/16 11:00 – 12:00

Hume in his essay ‘Of The Standard of Taste’ asked why we are willing to suspend disbelief when authors make all sorts of wild claims but draw the line when the author makes moral claims contrary to our own. This might be less true today than it was in Hume’s time but we have our own moral rubicons. From sexual taboos to the role of government, what are the sort of things that readers tend to reject regardless of how skillfully the author makes the case? In other words, what sort of stories provoke imaginative resistance? How can this feeling be used to deliberate effect, for example within the horror genre?

Jeff VanderMeer (M), Robert Jackson Bennett, Pat Cadigan, Daryl Gregory, Sarita Robinson

Giveaways and Read It Forward

Apparently Read it Forward is going a giveaway contest for City of Stairs, so if you’d like a copy, that’s one option.

Another option is to wait a bit, because I got 25 ARCs in the mail today.

books box

I’ll be handing out about 5 of these at Readercon, and I’ll also be handing out 10 or so at Loncon, coming up. That’s means I’ve got quite a few to mail out for a giveaway… So stay tuned, folks!


2014 Readercon Schedule

Boy howdy folks, am I excited to be going to Readercon this weekend, yessiree bob. I’m so excited that yesterday I treated myself to an organic pear.

Anywhoo, aside from the much more selfish reasons for attending Readercon, I will also be attending in order to try to justify why I’m worth reading, mostly by sweating and struggling to explain my opinions on panels. Please see below for all the shit I’m gonna do!


Saturday July 12

2:00 PM    F    Becoming a Better Reader. Marc Abrahams, Robert Jackson Bennett, Leah Bobet, Michael Dirda, Yoon Ha Lee, Resa Nelson (leader). In a 2013 Twitter comment, Caitlín R. Kiernan wrote, “Too often, the problem isn’t that an author needs to be a better writer, but that a reader needs to be a better reader.” As readers, we can sometimes tell whether we liked a book, but it’s much harder to step outside and evaluate ourselves as ideal readers and how our pleasure/displeasure in a work relates to what the author was trying to do. How can we become different readers, or better readers? What makes one reader better than another, in the context of a given work or in general? Is there even such a thing as a better reader, or are there only readers who are more or less prepared for a particular book?

Sunday July 13

12:00 PM    F    Extrapolating SF from Science . Robert Jackson Bennett, Cecil Castellucci, Danielle Friedman, Jeff Hecht (leader), Ken Liu, Allen Steele.“Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation,” Arthur C. Clarke declared. How far can authors see into the future and extrapolate about new technologies? Isaac Asimov said that science is how we see farther, and science fiction is where we write down what we see. Join us as our panelists discuss how they use science and technology in their work and how they try to predict future trends.
1:30 PM    EM    Reading: Robert Jackson Bennett. Robert Jackson Bennett. Robert Jackson Bennett reads from American Elsewhere.