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An Open Letter to Tom Kratman – Big Boys Don’t Cry

Dear Tom,

Yesterday I read your Big Boys Don’t Cry, which is nominated for the  2015 Hugo Award for Best Novella. There were bits of Big Boys Don’t Cry that I enjoyed, but your novella was a struggle to read. I nearly gave up at the 7% mark.  It had basic problems with prose style and narrative technique, which a good writing group could sort out in five minutes.

I’m sure that doesn’t bother your fanbase, who are interested in ideas-driven military SF written by a career military officer. And who understand the term ‘echelon left’ (page 87).  But it will bother anyone who reads SF primarily for the characters and drama.  And I understood why Big Boys Don’t Cry was dismissed as dreck by some non-Puppies.

echelon-left

I understand Echelon Left because I have played Battlelore – a light wargame by Fantasy Flight Games. Otherwise, no chance…

I’m not a great crit group, I’m not even a published (fiction) author, but the technical problems with this novella were so blindingly obvious I thought I could help. I’ve made this an open letter in the hope my writing advice may help others!

[This is not a political attack. The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere which won (WON?!!) the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story is also on my crit list. There is no way The Water should have won a Hugo… It wouldn’t have survived five minutes on my creative writing MFA without the red pens coming out].

The Good Stuff

(skip to ‘the bad stuff’ for the writing advice)

My work-in-progress novel has a living weapon protagonist, which is probably why I found this story more interesting than I would have otherwise. I enjoyed reading the traumatic memories of autonomous “Ratha” battle tank Magnolia, who learns in her dying moments how she has carried out out war crimes for her human masters. I loved that autonomous tank. Heck, it was a self-identifying female tank  – what is there not to like? For example, Kindle ref. 405:

“Big Boy here won’t cry”. Two lies in a single sentence. I am not a boy. And I will cry.

I liked the brutal training process for teaching Magnolia military tactics (Chapter 8). The story flew at that point and I really got into it. I liked how the Rathas were trained by receiving pleasure every time they performed the ‘correct’ actions. The uber-logical AI with no emotions is an SF trope, but animals are primarily motivated to do what they enjoy. Future AIs will doubtless be like Magnolia – created to love what they do (even if it’s cleaning loos).

A happy tank. Probably out killing some people...

A happy tank. Probably out killing some people…

Chapter 8 also had some  moving bits. The tank was the most sympathetic character in the story (more on that in a mo) and your writing was affecting when she was hurt, such as Kindle ref. 781:

All alone in its sterile virtual world, a baby Ratha weeps in agony without comprehension, as the sun stands still over a fallen corpse that will not die.

The Bad Stuff

Hook ye’ reader, varmints!

Chapter 2 of Big Boys Don’t Cry begins (Kindle ref. 71)…

The valley ran northeast to southwest.

Well, I’m gripped… Don’t know about you, but I’m dying to know what happens next. A valley runs northeast to southwest. Wow, valleys never do that… I must read on.

Valley

Yep, it’s a valley. It’s so tense and nail-biting.

So what does happen on the next line?

There was a winding cut through the rough center, a dry riverbed, a wadi, which was filled occasionally by unpredictable rain.

As I read this, I thought ‘is this a geology primer or a military SF novella about autonomous tanks‘? Then I thought, ‘Well, that explains why I’m bored by a story about autonomous tanks.’

So technical lesson one… How to open a chapter.

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene has possibly the best opening line in literature:

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him

Who is Hale? Why do they mean to murder him? And why in the sleeping seaside resort of Brighton, of all places? Jim Butcher, author of Hugo-nominated Skin Game, is also a master at hooking the reader. Turning to a random chapter in Blood Rites, the first line of Chapter 3 begins:

Thomas’s senses evidently didn’t compete with mine, because the Black Court vampire was up to its shoulders in the Beetle before he choked out a startled, ‘Holy crap!’

Yep, that’s a drama-filled opening alright. We’re hurled headlong into the action, the intrigue, the murder… Will Thomas survive? Will he beat off the Black Court vampire? Or is that the end of Harry Dresden’s half-demon brother…? Find out in paragraph 2…

Big Boys Don’t Cry, Chapter 2, has a drama-filled opening too. Unfortunately, it’s buried five paragraphs down on Kindle ref. 71.

Magnolia never heard the death scream of the lead unit, Leo.

THAT is your line one. A competent editor, or your friendly local writing group, would have put a huge circle around this line and a big arrow pointing to the beginning of your story.

Let’s experiment.  Let’s take this line, and the description (also on Kindle ref. 71) of how Leo blows up, and rustle up a better opening line.  How about:

Magnolia never heard the death scream of the lead unit, Leo. He simply disintegrated, his main turret flying end over end.

NOW we’re talking. Why did Magnolia never hear the death scream of Leo? How did a Ratha battle tank simply disintegrate? They’re being ambushed! By an enemy even more bad-ass than a battle tank! Aggghhh, I MUST… Read… on…

Show, don’t tell

Let’s stick to Kindle ref. 71 for the second technique problem – too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’.

Imagine watching the movie Psycho with no visuals and a bored friend narrating the events.“Well, she’s about to be killed by a psycho with an butcher knife’. That’s TELLING. Now imagine your friend says, “She’s in the shower and there’s a shadow  growing on the curtain. It’s a huge knife!”. That’s SHOWING.

Yep, it's a huge knife. And it's a bigger thrill without spoilers.

Yep, it’s a huge knife. And it’s a bigger thrill without spoilers.

‘Telling’ sucks tension and drama from the story because the reader doesn’t experience events alongside the point-of-view character.

Now let’s go to Kindle ref. 71 and I’ll highlight in bold every ‘tell’:

“They missed the big threat, precisely because it wasn’t very big. It normally took a lot to make a Ratha simply distintegrate. Fifty grams of anti-matter contained in a magnetic bottle was suddenly driven up into the underside of the vehicle then released from its magnetic bottle as the bottle’s generating mechanism was destroyed. Thus explosively joined with the Ratha’s lightly-armoured belly plate, it was enough to do the trick. Magnolia never heard the death scream of the lead unit, Leo, so rapid was his destruction. But the image of his main turret flying end on end, like some frying pan out at the hands of a titanic juggler**, was seared into her memory.”

That’s a LOT of telling. You’re not SHOWING us what Magnolia sees and her interpretation of it, you’re TELLING us what happened. In every sentence. You even tell us that the main turret flying end-to-end was ‘seared into her memory’. You don’t need to tell us that – really. If your writing is evocative enough, we can guess that on our own.

**You’ll see I’ve italicised the ‘frying pan out of the hands of a titanic juggler’ metaphor. Frying pan? Seriously. You want readers to be thinking of frying pans and jugglers in the middle of a firefight. Hellfire and brimstone, maybe. But jugglers? JUGGLERS?

Now let’s rewrite as real-time action to place the reader in the moment with Magnolia. This isn’t great (or even good), it’s not edited, and not going to get me a Hugo nomination, folks… But:

Magnolia never heard the death scream of the lead unit, Leo. He simply distintegrated, his main turret flying end over end, his four walls blasting in every direction…

…She stopped to replay her memories, zooming in on Leo in his last moments. A magnetic bottle of anti-matter had suddenly exploded from the ground and slammed into his lightly-armoured belly plate. 

More drama, but the same information. Hope you agree.

Is this a cardboard villain I see before me?

Big Boys Don’t Cry is an anti-war story about a tank with a conscience. She is manipulated by bad people. Very bad people. At least one reviewer said Big Boys Don’t Cry had:

 ‘meatsack villains so thoroughly stupid, corrupt and evil that they come across as cardboard black hats’.

Let’s head over to Kindle ref. 620, where we find one such villain.

Magda Dunkelmeier, the new governor, was a modern woman, certain modern in her attitudes. She was certain – absolutely convinced – that only some sort of men’s conspiracy had removed her from the center of moving and shaking. Either a conspiracy or perhaps the machinations of the little bimbo of a CD-seven who had not only caught the eye of the secretary but coverted Dunkelmeier’s previous job.

Ms Dunkelmeier goes on to start a civil war and massacre some children…

The real world has good and bad people, corrupt and idealistic people. It sometimes has people who are destructively idealistic – the Knight Templar whose fervour for righteousness swings them to evil. Readers intuitively know this. The further you swing your imagined world from that balance, the less they’re prepared to suspend disbelief in your story. In short, the more rabid you sound, the less persuasive you are.

Big Boys Don’t Cry has, apart from Magnolia, no characters who behave other than like psychopaths (tell me if I’m wrong). In the real world, around 1% of people are clinical psychopaths. So your world is  MASSIVELY unbalanced from reality.

Can we change that? Well, yes.  First, clarify whose point-of-view we’re in. Whose opinions are these about Magda Dunkelmeier?

  • Magnolia? Would a tank really know or care this much about politics?
  • Her political opponents? Her political allies presumably don’t think this about her.
  • The all-knowing author? In which case, you, Mr God-like author are a cruel God… Because you should know all your characters, even the most loathsome, have something heroic about them.

Let’s take a fictional example. Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Macbeth’s descent into murderous tyranny stems from positive characteristics – his martial valor, his love for his country, and his love for his wife. His remorse at seeing his friend Banquo’s ghost doesn’t stop him being a complete villain.

Everyone is the hero of their own story...

Everyone is the hero of their own story…

So find those positive traits in Magda Dunkelmeier. Ether tell us about them. Or make it downright clear that this is Magnolia’s (negative) opinion of her. Then have her kill the kids. I promise you, your writing will be 4,000 times more interesting that way.

More wooden villainy

Good fiction has characters wrestling with moral dilemmas. Their choices – good or bad – move the story forward and keep readers turning the pages. Apart from Magnolia, I didn’t notice (again, I may be wrong), characters struggling with difficult moral choices. They tended to deliver a few lines of exposition from Villain Central before vanishing again.

Take this mansplaining by a superior to a female technician about the crying Ratha AI (Kindle ref. 781):

He laughs, “Nonsense. You’re anthropomorphising. These things don’t cry. They can’t. They’re just machines. Besides, it has to learn to take it or we’ll end up having to scrap the unit. It’s a waste, of course, but it’s cheaper to reject the brain and reuse the materials than to risk putting an unsuitable brain in a real Ratha Hull.”

At the moment, he’s a cardboard baddie providing some exposition to the reader. Now let’s see if we can give him a dramatic moral choice, which reveals a character motivation. His emotional state – in this paragraph –  is ‘you silly little person, questioning me. I know these machines better than you.’  So let’s break up that long speech and see if we can build some dramatic tension. Something like:

He laughs, “Nonsense. You’re anthropomorphising. These things don’t cry.”

The technician’s emotional state is ‘Poor little machine, but I’ve only just started this job and I don’t want to look like a stupid noob” . So maybe we could force some more drama out the scene by making her persist and try to use a scientific example to convince him. Something like:

She gazed sideways at the screen, ‘Are you sure? It’s curled up like the sim rats in our animal tests’.

Then he might think ‘hmmm, she’s got a point, but she’s still a noob with the IQ of a teapot and, anyhow, I can’t entertain the possibility that this thing might feel because I’d never forgive myself. Also, I can’t delay the project, not in this fictional universe where 75% of people are descended from Hannibal Lector. They’ll be queuing up to execute me…’ So he might say:

He stepped away from the console and shrugged. “I’m certain. It’s not a rat, it’s a Ratha. Completely synthetic.”  He frowned, thinking about Ms Dunkelmeier. “Besides, it doesn’t matter if it feels. It has to learn to take it or we’ll end up having to scrap the unit. And I’m not going to be responsible for explaining THAT to the committee.”

Now he’s still dismissing her, but has to question his actions and change his argument. Then he pauses a moment, uncertain about his ethical choices, but quickly self-justifies his behaviour with another sentence that reveals a (possible) character motivation. Now his conscience is clear.  The little AI can go squeal all it likes. Hopefully, now the scene looks a little more ‘real’, behaviour-wise, a little more dramatic and less like an info dump.

Incidentally, I’m using a screenwriting technique called ‘turning a scene’ with ‘beats’. It’s where you script a conversation through moment-to-moment action/reaction, which brings an encounter to a turning point. A ‘beat’ is the smallest unit of action or dialogue. A ‘turning point’ is the moment where plot moves forward.

Here, the turning point is the man deciding to leave the little AI weeping. He’s making a significant moral decision (the wrong one). Had he said ‘Well, actually, you’ve got a point. It might be crying. Let’s cut the poor little Ratha some slack and I’ll speak to my boss’, the plot would have turned out very different.

You can read more about ‘beats’ and ‘turning points’ here and here (see page 64).  And here I’ve found an example of a scene deconstructed into beats and turning points. The definitive book is Robert McKee’s Story.

And finally…

Apologies for this being rather long. It is sincere feedback.

Feel free to comment or email me.

Yours,

Vee

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