Monday, April 30, 2012

Recap for April 2012

I've been recapping my blog at the end of every month, and it's useful for me, so I continue.

Book Reviews
Uncross Your Heart by Taryn Elliott (4/5 stars; debut romance, ebook only) — The book that showed me I don't hate all romance, just some of the tropes. Very enjoyable read, sizzling sexual tension. But maybe I'm biased; this is someone from my writing group.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (4/5 stars; steampunkish Victorian urban fantasy; audio book) — Much-hyped debut novel doesn't quite live up to the gushing praise, but manages to entertain with a well-crafted tale that shows it's a debut. Looking forward to this author's next few books, to see if she improves.

Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones (4/5 stars; YA urban fantasy with fae and magicians; audio book) — Magic dabbler inherits his grandfather's house and a load of responsibility he doesn't understand, but he soon has a young helper in sorting it out.

In the Blood by Nancy A. Collins (4/5 stars; Sonja Blue #2; horror/urban fantasy before it was a genre) — Sonja Blue, returns to face off against the monster who made her what she is. Less bleak and confusing than #1, though Sonja is still the rare modern vampire who's scary.

The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber (3/5 stars; fairy tale spoof) — Humorous take on fairy tales loses something with an adult audience. Doesn't help that I've never been a fan of Thurber's.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (3/5 stars; futuristic science fiction heavy on the 1980s nostalgia; audio book) — Another overhyped debut, this time banking on 1980s and gaming nostalgia. Best thing about this was the narration by Wil Wheaton for the audio book.

No Place Like Home by Seanan McGuire (5/5 stars; InCryptid-related short story; Wild West monster hunting family) — Our first look inside the Price family home, an origin story, and a chance for the Aeslin mice to have a say in the plot. So much to recommend this quick tale, which is still free on the author's website.

On Mystic Lake by Kristin Hannah (4/5 stars; contemporary fiction with a romance flavor) — A woman questioning everything about her life goes back to her hometown, and finds what she needs. But can she keep it?

Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk (4/5 stars; political and cultural satire; audio book) — A young terrorist infiltrates middle America and reports back on his mission status via status updates that are in turns hilarious and gross.

Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner (3/5 stars; chick lit with a mystery plot; audio book) — A bored stay-at-home mom investigates her neighbor's untimely demise. A book with a fun narrator dwindles to an unsatisfying conclusion.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson (5/5 stars; hilarious blogger's memoir) — The Bloggess's book is even funnier than I expected, and also more poignant. And congratulations are in order for the book's debut at #1 on the NYT Nonfiction bestsellers.

Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich (2/5 stars; urban fantasy rehash of the Stephanie Plum series) — This was so hackneyed and derivative that I've sworn off anything Evanovich has written.

Tithe by Holly Black (3/5 stars; YA urban fantasy with fairies) — Well-paced tale about a girl discovering her ties to Faerie keeps the reader at arm's length by never giving insight into the characters or explaining anything.

Most Popular Posts in April
Good Stuff: The Chrestomanci Series generated a ton of links from a right-leaning political site. I have no idea, but I'll take the blog hits.

Apparently a lot of people found my Miscellania and Potentially Useful Links useful.

Lots of people wanted to know more about my Pet Peeve of Infodumping, which was what I disliked so much about Ready Player One.

My Grammar Peeve: Comma Splices drew some readers. I was going to make that sentence into a comma splice, but the idea made my teeth hurt.

My general post on Reading for Pleasure was about why I choose the books I do, and to heck with anyone who wants to dictate what I should read. I've been out of school for years, thankyouverymuch.

Speaking of school, I outline whether I think it's useful in Learning to Write, and some alternatives to spending tens of thousands of dollars and four years of your life.

I have a Pet Peeve of Low Stakes in the books I read, and I discuss that in some depth.

I also have a Pet Peeve of Clichés, and I discuss why to avoid them.

The most useful link of the month is also toward the bottom of the page hits, but I'm going to repost it here, anyway. Lots of writers have trouble Naming Characters, and so I offer some resources.

That about wraps it up. I'll see everyone in May*.

*As in tomorrow, yes. There will be a post expounding on theme.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Learning to Write

I recently stumbled across some short stories I'd written in 2003, two years after I'd graduated from college with a degree in Creative Writing. The stories all had a Message, and happily beat the reader about the head for several pages with it. I skimmed through several old pieces to see if there was something I could reuse, then I finally closed the file when I found only embarrassment.

I've evolved significantly in the years since I wrote those short stories. I recognize what was wrong with them easily. While my style is still very much the same as it was when I wrote those stories, and my characterization was fine, my content is improved. When I have a theme, I'm able to pursue it with far more subtlety, and tie more aspects of the story to that theme.

I didn't learn this in college. If I had, I wouldn't have written those execrable short stories two years later. I don't remember reading anything explicit about how I shouldn't do that in the interim, nor have I discussed it in the writing group or attended any workshops. It's something I've managed to internalize in the last nine years.

So, what did that Creative Writing degree teach me, then? It didn't teach me the building blocks of writing; I learned those in elementary, middle and high school, in the school system I was lucky enough to attend. My voice was entrenched by the time I entered college. I'd already been finishing stories before I started college, and finding time to write.

Mostly, when I look back on college, I remember it as where I learned I'm sensitive to criticism. It was the first time my peers had read my words, and I felt like I'd been peeled apart and stabbed repeatedly after critiques. Mostly, I felt vindicated in my decision to keep my writing to myself.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I wouldn't advise that people go to school for writing degrees if they wish to be published authors. If you go to college, get a degree in something you'll get directly hired into a job that'll pay the bills.

On the other hand, I am just one person, and my perspective could be skewed. Still, college is awfully expensive to use as an experiment. If you can afford it, and you'll have a job in the publishing industry lined up at the end, by all means, major in Creative Writing. But for the high school students with a yearning to write, I say, just write. When you feel like you've gotten as good as you can, let another writer see it, and get an honest critique.

Your first critique will hurt. There's no getting around that. But it's growing pains. Once you've finished hurting, and you've had a chance to let it sink in, you'll see that your critique partner was right, and that you can fix the issues he or she brought up.

I think getting input from people you trust to steer you right is an important part of the process. The story will have to leave your hands, at some point, if it's going to be good enough to publish. Maybe you'll get to the submission process without ever getting an outside critique, but getting non-professional input, in my experience, is a good way of breaking bad habits and seeing glaring errors or issues before an editor bleeds red ink all over it.

Lots of writers have learned and improved a lot through various workshops, boot camps, and retreats, so I'm not going to knock those. I will say, though, that the best way to improve is by practice, and by breaking bad habits. Personally, I learned far more from reading a lot, writing a lot, and getting critiques from my writing group, than I did spending tens of thousands of dollars and four years of my life on college.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


When I did my inadvertent series on turning negative personality traits into things that make you a better writer, I mentioned that I had more traits I wanted to talk about. I thought I'd spend today talking about my tendency to veer off-topic.

"Which Way?" by Mike Coates, found here
In my blog entries, I make an effort to keep my posts on-topic. Nonetheless, you've probably noticed that I touch on a lot of things, some of which I come back to later, others that remain merely an offhand comment. I'm even worse about this in spoken word, where I can't hit the backspace key to stay on-topic. We haven't exactly passed a rule against tangents in the writing group, but it has been requested several times that, during a critique, we talk about the work, and not whatever subject we think of. (I'm not the only one who does it, but, the last 5 times people steered us back on track, I was the one who'd grabbed a conversational morsel and run with it.)

That makes it difficult to carry on conversations with me, especially if you needed to discuss something in particular with me. I've gotten a lot of practice with stopping myself mid-conversation, and tracing how I arrived at a given subject.

This practice has been a great help in writing dialogue. When I have two characters talking, that isn't to fill pages. I have to show something about those characters, while also conveying something the reader doesn't yet know. The conversation, then, will have to naturally meander. I could have my characters bluntly ask whatever it is they want to know, but I've never been happy with how that reads. It's always abrupt and jarring, and my own natural tendency is to have the person being asked react defensively. People don't just blurt things out. At least, not the people I know.

Instead, I think about my own conversational meanderings, and how I reach the topics I do. I look at the steps involved in getting from, say, a discussion on local politics to the cute thing the cats did this morning. I think about the subtle push-and-pull people exert on a conversation to steer it to their liking, and what happens when that's too overt.

Obviously I have to take shortcuts. I can't have a conversation as random as one I'd really have, or I'd have people blathering on for pages. Dialogue isn't meant to sound exactly like a conversation; it's supposed to sound like a stylized conversation that fits the characters' voices and the tone of the book.

I don't know how people who don't meander in their conversations learn how to lead their dialogue in an organic way. Probably through trial and error. That sounds like a lot of work, though. I'm glad I have my experience with conversational tangents to guide me.

Review: Tithe by Holly Black

Tithe by Holly Black

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm having a hard time ascribing a number value to my opinion of this book. On the one hand, there was good narrative tension that pulled me through it at a decent clip. On the other hand, I felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities in the narrative. On the other other hand, I didn't write it, so of course the style was different from mine. On the other other other hand, the missing piece did detract from my enjoyment. And on the oth—

You get the idea.

I do like books that don't explicitly answer all of the questions it raises. I like when things are known by the author but isn't written out on the page. I just felt like Tithe took that to too great an extreme, to the point where I couldn't figure out why anyone did anything, and the action felt like a video game walkthrough.

Tithe is about a girl with a really chaotic upbringing. Her mother is the lead singer for a small-time band, and so Kaye has very little supervision, and her mother is completely unconcerned with her smoking and drinking habits. She's too busy hooking up with abusive jerks to care about her kid. Then they go back to Kaye's grandmother's, where Kaye once befriended some fairies.

That the fairy element is presented straight-faced, with very few people questioning it (beyond some initial boggling) is both a strength and weakness of the book. It kept the disbelief from bogging down the narrative, and clearly Kaye had adjusted to it years before. But at the same time, it took away some of the sense of wonder and the alien nature of the fae. Instead, we get very matter-of-fact descriptions of kidnapped children, casual cruelty, and a society very different from our own. It's supposed to do the show-don't-tell thing, but it comes across, to me, like LARPers explaining to the newbie in their midst how different they are from everyone else. It just never evoked much of a reaction in me, beyond, "What happens next?"

It really didn't help that I got very little insight into the characters. We get a superficial description of what they're doing, what they hope happens next, what they're trying to accomplish. But leaps of logic are reached without any insight into the thought process or how they arrived there. People do things, apparently because it was the thing to do. A character dies, and Kaye is bereft, but I never felt like she cared about the person in the first place, or like the death served any purpose in the narrative. There's a romance plot, but I had no idea what drew them together, besides pure chance and that he's a good kisser. One major culmination of the plot is smothered in, "Wait, what?"

I guess, in the end, the book isn't terrible, but I can't strongly recommend it, either. I don't like it when a narrative keeps me at arm's length. It's a tricky balance, withholding just enough to preserve narrative tension, and this book doesn't quite achieve it; too much mystery at the expense of being able to relate. I didn't want explicit answers, but I did want some insight into the characters. As it is, their actions are supposed to show us something to relate to, and I guess I just wasn't that kind of teenager.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stealing Ideas

"Bright Idea" taken from this site
I've already posted about plagiarism and how ideas are frequently used in more than one story at a time. I also alluded to this in yesterday's post about generating ideas, where I mentioned that some of mine come from reading. When I say that, I don't mean that an offhand comment by a side character sparks something.

In this post, I wanted to talk about using someone else's idea. I'm not advocating that you sidle up to other writers and take notes on what they're working on. But you can look at what's already out there, and use that as a springboard.

I already mentioned in my post on plagiarism that there are three basic plots: person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. self. Every story ever told is some variation on one of those concepts, or a mixture. With that in mind, I can't help but scoff at the notion that ideas are sacred. To me, there are no new stories. There are only more interesting characters playing them out in different words.

So, how does one take an idea that already exists, without plagiarizing? You make it your own. For instance, if a culture in a fantasy novel you're reading sparks your imagination, but you write urban fantasy, you might transplant that culture into a NYC borough. You would want to avoid reusing any characters, place names, or events within that fantasy novel, because then you're getting into plagiarism territory. Generally, your best bet is to jot it down, and then let it simmer somewhere in the back of your mind until you're confident you can write it without copying. Don't reread the original source right before you start your story.

For me, the urge to use someone else's idea comes when I read the back cover of a book, find the concept intriguing, but then I'm disappointed by the delivery. I feel like I can do it better. I don't pick concepts that I think were done well the first time around. For instance, I won't be writing about a dystopian future where women who retain their fertility are brainwashed into bearing rich men's babies, because Margaret Atwood wrote that story beautifully, and there's no way I could write anything better. Mine would be a pale imitation.

Fairy tale retellings are my favorite version of this not-plagiarism. I've read some creative takes on the stories I grew up with, often that lend the female characters more agency than the original narratives. I like the idea of there being more to the story than what "everyone knows."

And that's really what it's all about. Look for the story that wasn't told within the narrative you're borrowing from. Make it your own. Flip it on its head, look deeper, or just go in a different direction with it. Use it to inspire you.

There may well be an infinite number of ideas, floating around out there, but you're going to severely limit yourself if you can't write anything someone else has written about. Provided you're using the idea merely as inspiration and not as your outline, I would encourage you to mine other works for ideas.

Sometimes, it's the only consolation you'll get from a bad book.

Review: Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich

Wicked Appetite
Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I should've listened to my friend Cyndy when she said I wouldn't like this. Wicked Appetite is a rehash of everything I don't like about the Stephanie Plum series, with nothing new to recommend it.

I'm not a fan of the between-the-numbers books in the first place. This book basically takes the between-the-numbers formula and files the serial numbers off Stephanie Plum to turn her into a single woman from Virginia living in Salem who can cook. Lula is no longer a sassy black ex-prostitute; in this, she's Glow, a ditzy wannabe witch who botches spells. Baker-Stephanie, whose name is Lizzie Tucker, is supposedly staid and predictable, and is able to get out of bed before her alarm even after tromping around all night on this ridiculous quest for the MacGuffin, a series of items that make a person gluttonous in various ways.

I didn't see any reason for Lizzie to want to help Diesel. I was unconvinced that her attraction to him was anything more than Stockholm syndrome. He regularly ignores her, violates her boundaries (he sleeps naked next to her when she expressly told him to sleep on the couch, for crying out loud), and generally does nothing to recommend himself. In return, apparently, she thinks he's cute.

There were way too many wacky hijinks in this book, something that I was merely tolerating through Evanovich's other books. They're not funny, and their inclusion makes the story drag along. It's like talking to that batty aunt who thinks she's really funny. In Wicked Appetite, in addition to the aforementioned Glow, there's the inclusion of Carl the monkey, lots of blown-up cars and houses, and a ninja cat without a name. There are also a number of scenes which serve the singular purpose of trying to be funny by giving the weirdo characters a whole scene in which to embarrass Lizzie.

As for Lizzie, she tells us about the things that make her different from Stephanie Plum, but, at the end of the day, she's so much like her, she even has the same mannerisms, verbal tics, and cadence. The narrator for the audio book tries gamely to make her sound different from Ms. Plum by adding a subtle southern accent, but the fact of the matter is, she sounds just like Stephanie. And some of Diesel's dialogue is lifted, word-for-word, from Morelli and Ranger's dialogue. Unh, indeed.

If you're begging for more of the between-the-numbers fare and you're desperately in love with the annoying Diesel character, you'll love this, because that's all it is. As for me, this book has sealed my decision to not pick up another book Janet Evanovich has written. I enjoyed some of the Stephanie Plum books, but not enough to risk slogging through another like Wicked Appetite.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Becoming an Idea Factory

One of the most often repeated interview questions, and therefore the one authors come to dread the most, is "Where do you get your ideas?" You'll also hear writers, amidst eyerolls all around, commiserate over the jerks who've offered to give them their idea if the writer will write it, and then they'll split the profits down the middle.

Ideas are not an endangered species, which is something you know if you've finished more than one piece of writing. As soon as you're in the middle of one project, another one will start jumping up and down, begging, "Write me! Write me!"
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A lot of writers get their story seeds from dreams. Others get inspiration in the middle of researching a subject of interest. Many writers use writing prompts, which can be as complicated as in the link, or they can be a couple of random words. (If you google "writing prompts", you'll find the whole gamut.) The best way I've found to generate ideas is to get away from what I'm working on, where I'll inevitably have a flood of ideas, both for untangling the knot I've written around my narrative, and for working on something new. I also get ideas from books I've read, book recommendations people have requested, roleplaying games I've run or played, people I've met, places I've visited, music I've listened to, or offhand comments I've overheard in public places.

Not that I'm looking to generate anything new. I currently have a backlog. I've been making up stories for my imaginary friends since before I could spell my own name, but the ability to articulate them took longer. Very few of those early ideas were viable, of course, but I did generate a lot more of them when I didn't toss things out because it was unrealistic, or because no one would like it, or because I didn't know how to do the story justice. Working without a filter means you can generate a lot more.

Ideas come all the time. Having ideas isn't the problem, at least not with most of the writers I've read, listened to, and spoken to about it. The problem is filtering those ideas, to turn the good ones into a good story, and to discard the ones that are no good.

Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Sometimes you're not going to have the writing chops to do the story justice. Sometimes you've written half a book before you've realized you need to go back to the drawing board. And that's okay, because you can always set it aside for later, or gut the idea to use it elsewhere. That can be a problem if you're writing under a deadline, but, if you're near the same stage as I am, deadlines won't be an issue for at least a year or two, and that's an optimistic guess.

But if you're worried the ideas will dry up, or you don't think you have a lot, it's time to start jotting down story seeds, random observations, and potential plots. I have a document on my computer, which I update from scribbled notes or what I recall of the idea by the time I open my laptop. The file is currently twelve items long, and grows at the rate of about one item a month. More, if I'm feeling restless with my current project.

Ideas are not rare and precious creatures. Ideas are all over the place. It's all about being able to identify them as such, to classify them as a good or a bad idea, and to flesh them out into a whole story.

Once you start collecting your viable ideas, I'm sure you'll be surprised how many of them you have, and how easily they occur to you. Like writing regularly, you can get into the habit of it. Unlike writing on a regular basis, ideas don't need much of a time investment. You may find, in fact, that the less time you have to write, the more ideas you get crowding your head, begging for you to get them on paper.

Ideas, it has been my experience, are not the hard part.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Review: Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess)

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir
Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can't remember the last time a book made me laugh this hard. At page 120, I literally had to put the book down, log into Goodreads, and update my status before I could stop giggling. Then I wiped my tears of laughter away, and went back to reading.

My husband was both intrigued and baffled by this, among many similar episodes. More than once, I woke him up with how hard I was laughing. Considering he's taken to wearing earplugs (I wonder why), it was quite a feat.

I've been reading Jenny Lawson's blog* since her most popular post went viral last summer, so I had a vague notion of what to expect from her book. And yet, I was unprepared. The humor is at once her trademark absurdist brand and something that sneaks up on you.

(* As I don't swear in my reviews or on my blog, I feel it would be appropriate to alert you that The Bloggess has a varied and colorful vocabulary. If you're offended by four-letter words, you are unlikely to appreciate that link.)

Were this book just a humorous romp, though, I wouldn't have rated it as high as I did. I would've felt enlightened, knowing the childhood and upbringing that made The Bloggess the woman so many readers love today. I would've felt like I'd gotten my money's worth.

But there's even more to it than a quirky childhood, laugh-worthy observations, and bizarre circumstances brought about by the various quirks she discusses. There's also a depth to this narrative. It's in the overall thread running through the chapters about her relationship with her husband, where they bicker about the oddest things and she reveals how she frustrates him, but it's clear they're made for each other. It's in the chapter where she takes a big risk to hang out with people she knows only online, and discovers that meeting people can be awesome, if they're the right people. It's in the humble way she refuses to take credit for the strength she evinces in these pages.

Though the book heavily features taxidermy and an obsession with stuffed dead things, you don't have to appreciate taxidermy to like this book. I'm indifferent to the subject, and yet I relate to The Bloggess's obsession, because I have things I buy even though I know I shouldn't, too.

The Bloggess espouses the value of being furiously happy. I didn't know if I really knew what that meant, before I read this book. Now, I know, because this book has made me furiously happy. You should be furiously happy with me, and read it.

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Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back: a Progress Post

I last reported on my progress on the eighth of this month, and it's nearing the end of the month now. "Reincarnation" currently has 125,244 words, and I'm not done. This book really got away from me; I'm going to have to trim a lot to make it manageable. I tweeted last week that this is the book that doesn't end (to which another friend supplied more of The Song That Doesn't End, with a literary bent. My friends get me, and that's awesome). I have four handwritten pages I need to type up, and, at the top of the fourth page is some notes I've already made of things I need to change and cut.

This is the downside to panstering, by the way. I may have to erase a whole month's writing, in the end, because I didn't hit my stride and get to the conflict until mid-February. There are some passages I can salvage for book 3 (this being a trilogy), but a lot of it will need to be scrapped entirely. And that's discouraging.

So discouraging, that I let myself get distracted into a read-through edit of book 1. The good news is, it's a compelling story. In two nights, I read through all of it, when I didn't think I'd have the time to do anything, writing-wise. My change of adding another perspective has threaded more tension in and added a subplot that keeps it ticking along. The bad news is, I have notes on things I need to change, and no time to fix them. I started out with just one page of handwritten pages I hadn't gotten to typing up, and it's ballooned since then.

Ah, well. The beat goes on, and I know where my time is going, at least. I'll figure out how to squeeze in everything I need to do, somehow.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was very uncomfortable to listen to.

I took out the book on CD and listened to it in the car, on the theory that it would go faster, being listened to in the moments when I don't have anything better to do. It did, indeed, go a lot quicker than it would've if I'd sat down with the book, but that doesn't mean it was fast. There were more than a few cringe-inducing chapters that I wish I could've skimmed past.

Gabaldon does horrible things to her characters, and leaves very little to the imagination on that front. Rape, torture, flogging, whipping and disciplinary spanking are all discussed frankly and in intimate detail. Sex is plentiful, but the details are glossed over, to the point where I was murmuring, every time the characters discovered a new picturesque location, "And then they had sex in it," because that was what most of it boiled down to. It got pretty silly, in the middle.

I got pretty mad at the book around that point, too. Claire, our main character, time travels from post-WWII back to the 1740s, and brings her "modern" notions with her. So, understandably, she protests the notion of being spanked for just trying to go home. (In the book, it's called beating, but it's bare-handed hitting across her bare butt.) Jamie, her husband and the one administering the beating, shows no remorse until he finds out the whole truth, but she quickly forgives him and comes to agree. I felt better about it after Jamie felt bad after learning the whole truth, but I remained skeptical about the book's claim of Claire as a strong female protagonist it seemed to have been staking up to that point. The forgiveness seemed too quick, and there were other aspects of domination that made me very uncomfortable. I think the book would've been a lot stronger if the dominance aspect had been left out. At least, I would've liked it better.

I still don't think I've fully forgiven Jamie for that section of the book, even after the awful things he has to endure in the last few chapters. I won't go into it in detail here, but suffice it to say that I was cringing, hearing it read aloud to me. It was horrible and grueling and awful, and I couldn't shake the feeling that the author was really enjoying making this character suffer. She spoke in fetishistic detail about young Jamie's beatings, and now this? It was pretty creepy.

I didn't totally hate it. There were moments that made me smile, and I was a little intrigued to find out what happens next. I won't be picking up the next one.

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Writing Humor

I've been laughing a lot lately. I listened to an audio of Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk last Sunday, which was some odd and twisted humor. Last night, I watched Eddie Izzard's Unrepeatable, which was quite entertaining. And, if you've been following my Goodreads updates, you know I'm currently reading Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, and I've been laughing so hard I'm worried I'll pull something.

I wouldn't dream of putting my humor anywhere near the league of the above humorists. I don't write humor, but I do sprinkle it throughout my stories. People can't read my stuff in the same room as me, or I sit there watching for them to laugh in the right places. Because nothing says, "This is funny" more than someone waiting for you to laugh, right?

I'm a firm believer in the use of humor to ease narrative tension, and to make a story more appealing. It was the humor value that made me love Discount Armageddon as much as I did. Humor can be used to emotionally connect to readers. A narrative that makes me laugh is one I feel more connected to, generally. It's the dark humor in the Dexter books that keeps me coming back, for instance.

While I wouldn't want to dissect the humor to pull out all the fun, I have noticed that there are patterns to how it tends to appear. Most of the humor that makes me laugh, or at least that connects me to the narrative, fits into one of these categories:

  • Juxtaposition - The humor is presented alongside something ordinary. In my own writing, this appears when I have a character who's straight-laced and serious next to one who's carefree and happy-go-lucky. While one character frets about the end of the world as we know it, the other is cracking jokes. The "straight man" in old vaudeville comedy routines was a use of juxtaposition.
  • Highlighting Everyday Absurdity - Life is weird, which you know if you've ever made people laugh with a story of something that pissed you off. It wasn't funny at the time, but, with some distance and perspective, you realized how silly it was, and told it in a way that showed others how funny the situation was. Without laughter, there are a lot of aspects of my job in human services I wouldn't know how to cope with. When me and my co-workers are having a bad day, you can tell because the office door is closed, and all you can hear is laughing. It's not because our consumers are ridiculous; it's because everything is. It's all in how you look at it.
  • Exaggeration - Sometimes, it's all about scale. Something may not be funny all by itself, but, when you inflate it to something we can all recognize as funny, you're all set. Getting cut off on the highway might not be humorous, but what if it's by a seven-foot-tall man driving a Mini, and wearing a rainbow wig? I'd be a lot less mad and more smiling to myself, if I saw that.
  • Repetition - My husband will sometimes pound jokes into the ground. He doesn't do it to annoy me or because he's unfunny; he does it because I laughed the first time, and I laughed harder the second time, and giggled helplessly the third time. It does have to contain some humor value during that first iteration, but, especially if you can mix it with some of the above elements, repetition will usually inflate humor value.
  • Absurdity - I use absurdity and unexpected humor sparingly, because I think they can be overdone really easily, and stretch a reader's willingness to suspend disbelief. But tossing in something that doesn't belong, or a humorous statement out of the blue, can increase its humor value.
  • Understatement - This is the dry kind of humor I really like, though it's rarely laugh-out-loud funny. If it's pouring down rain, I might come inside, drenched head to toe, and remark, "Sprinkling a bit out there."
There are people much funnier than me who could enumerate all the various techniques and how to employ them, but those are the ones I deliberately think about when I'm trying to make something funny. Like everything else, though, humor can and should be researched. Watch funny movies, read funny books, listen to comedy routines that make you laugh. Note what it was that made you laugh, and think about why.

There are worse homework assignments.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Pet Peeve: Tokenism

This is my last post (for now) in my series on beginning writer mistakes that give away a book as being an author's first. I'm sure I'll notice things up the line that bother me, but this week was devoted to the markers I'd been noticing in debut novels of late. On Monday, I wrote about clichés. On Tuesday, I posted about low stakes, and how it cheats the reader. Yesterday, I blogged about infodumps, and why it's both insulting and amateur.

Today, I'm wrapping up with a post on token characters. A token character is when there's just one person there to represent an entire group, often a minority. It can be a token female, a token black person, a token Jewish character, a token gay character, a token person with a disability, a token Asian character, or any number of underrepresented characters in fiction. The token character represents everyone within that group, and therefore is defined by what makes that character different from the main character. Token characters often fall within stereotypes and have a flat characterization compared to the rest of the cast. Or, they're just like every other character, with nothing to distinguish them except that they're described as having a different color skin.

I know exactly where the token character comes from. Writers don't want to populate their worlds with a homogeneous group of straight, white, neurotypical men. They've absorbed the message that there should be a diverse cast, without thinking about the pitfalls of pretending to speak for a minority group.

The solution isn't to add more minority characters to your story, if you only have one. There is no quota to fulfill, and sheer numbers aren't going to do it. If you're falling into a stereotype with one character, chances are good that another minority character is just going to wind up representing another set of stereotypes.

The answer is research, and character development. A character is more than the role he or she serves. Characters I encounter in well-written books each have their own lives, their own conflicts, their own stories outside that of the main character. So should the minority character. While that life shouldn't revolve around what makes him or her different, it should be informed by it.

You would do well to start your research, if you haven't encountered it already, with Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. There are many, many things each of us takes for granted that isn't in the world view of a person who belongs to a minority, or who grew up in a different financial background, or who has a disability. It's of utmost importance to acknowledge that perspective before you even begin to put your minority character on the page. Assuming that none of that matters is a big mistake, one I've seen many, many writers commit.

Another good step is to read stories written by people of many different backgrounds. Pay attention to the parts that resonate with you, and be ready to accept the differences. If you find yourself reacting emotionally (anger, defensiveness, frustration), take a step back, and try to acknowledge why you're reacting personally to something that isn't directed at your perspective.

If you're writing about a minority group to which you do not belong, it's great that you want to show a whole, diverse world. Just be ready to listen to those who belong to the group you want to have a representative of in your book. Have an open mind. You may not get it right the first time, or the second, or even the twentieth. What's important is that you keep listening, keep trying to improve, keep trying to get it right.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Pet Peeve: Infodumping

Research is one of the most important steps to take before you start to write. Pantster or outliner, fiction or nonfiction, genre or literary, there will be things about which you don't know enough to write as if you're inside them. You will write characters who know things you don't. Therefore, you will have to look up things you don't already know.

Image of a dump at Fadiouth, Senegal from Wikipedia.
Originally taken by John Atherton.
The temptation is strong, for newer writers in particular, to toss in everything they've learned about a subject. Characters will deliver dissertations on their favorite subjects, illuminate the reader at length about something they may not already know, or go on for paragraphs explaining a concept.

It only takes a morsel to convince a reader you know what you're talking about. If the purpose of your book is to generate interest in a subject, the way to teach them about it is not to inundate the reader with information (unless you're writing a nonfiction book about it, in which case, carry on). The more you throw at the reader, the less the mystique.

You have to trust your reader to have a brain. That brain will either recognize that you know what you're talking about, or it will be intrigued by the tidbit of information and want to learn more. Dumping it all on your reader right then and there is patronizing, and it brings the narrative to a screeching halt. If you're doing it at the start of your book, you've given the reader a reason to put it down and go read something that isn't talking down to them.

Infodumping can also be delivered in the form of world-building. Your world must stand on its own, without every aspect being explained as you go on. Readers will pick up a lot from context. You can sprinkle in a few sentences here or there to offer some context, but there does come a point in time when you have to stop holding the reader's hand and trust that they'll follow you into this strange land you've created. If you don't, once again, you've killed the pacing, and you're talking down to your reader.

I can't give you an exact formula of how much information to include, because that will depend on the story and the world and the concept. The best rule of thumb I've heard is to cut anything that isn't immediately required in the narrative. If it doesn't play a part in the story, out it goes. Also, it should be sprinkled liberally. More than one paragraph of information per scene is probably too much, and should be spread out more evenly. If your beta readers or crit group doesn't remark on it, though, you're probably fine.

Just try to be aware of whether you've put in a piece of information because it's vital that the reader know it, or if you thought it would be fun to include. If it's not vital, out it goes.

Review: Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner

Goodnight Nobody
Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't like open-ended narratives. It's a shame, because this book had so much going for it. I sympathized with the main character, I enjoyed the pacing and the characters, and I wanted to know where it was going. Instead, I got a fizzled part 3, no resolution to the questions that kept me pulled along to the end, and a failed attempt at a pastiche to Kate Chopin's The Awakening. An ending that tried to be highbrow and literary instead felt to me like a cop-out, and I made a disgusted noise when I realized that was all there was.

I listened to the book on audio, and the narrator was overall good. She had inflections and accents to mark each individual character, and didn't make the children sound screechy. I was distracted, though, by her continued pronunciation of Eastham (properly pronounced "East Ham") as "East'im." She also attempts a Cape Cod accent, which I wish she'd left alone.

Aside from that, the book had a lot of promise. Kate gained my sympathy early on, by living one of my worst nightmares, and handling it with humor and sarcasm, the way I think I might've.

The story follows Kate Klein, mother of three-year-old twin boys and a four-year-old girl, stuck in suburban housewife hell. She discovers her neighbor, a fellow stay-at-home-mother, dead with a knife in her back, and sets out to solve the mystery. She uncovers a lot of sordid details along the way, and starts to feel useful and smart and like she's good at something, a feeling which has eluded her most of her life.

Along the way, she reconnects with someone who broke her heart 7 years before, and for whom she still carries a torch. Evan McKenna is the private investigator the murder victim sometimes hired to find details which eluded her, and he is, briefly, a suspect in Kate's mind.

I honestly don't know if I was supposed to root for her to leave her boring, safe husband for Evan, if I was supposed to hope she'd finally be able to quell all those old, stupid feelings, or if I was supposed to believe she'd strike out on her own at the end of the book. Considering most of her problems in the beginning of the book revolve around her having to take care of the kids by herself, I hope that's not the answer. Nor am I entirely comfortable rooting for Ben, the husband. Declarations of how much he'll change, of bending to please the wifey, rarely end up with a blissful marriage, and I saw no indications this would end with a major overhaul to Ben's personality. Nor did I get the sense Evan was anything but a complication, or that he would be anything but another mouth to feed for poor, put-upon Kate.

I wasn't particularly impressed with the resolution to the murder mystery, either. The murderer worked so hard behind the scenes to stay off Kate's radar that the reveal felt like it came out of left field. There needed to be more direct intervention.

Kate's investigation turns up another mystery, too, and the resolution to that one was even less satisfying. I didn't see what triggered the person who eventually fesses up, there, to do so. It felt like it was dropped in there because an editor noted that there were too many questions remaining at the end of the book, and so a solution was cobbled together. It felt messy.

This is not the first of Jennifer Weiner's books I've read, which is good. If it was, I wouldn't want to pick up anything else she'd written. Instead, I'll write this off as a disappointing anomaly, and try something else she's written, at some point.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pet Peeve: Low Stakes

Last night, I promised more posts on trends that mark a first book as an author's debut. Yesterday was about clichés. Today, I thought I'd talk about low-stakes writing.

The stakes in a book constitute what's at risk if the characters fail. In a first-person narrative, threatening the character's life isn't going to convince the reader, because obviously the person is alive to tell the story. There is a way around that, and I can get to that in a later post. In most stories, though, the character doesn't risk only death for failure. Often financial or career ruin are at stake, or harm to someone that character cares deeply about. The danger of being shunned or dubbed a pariah can serve as a powerful motivator for many characters, and sometimes the stakes are as simple as seeing a person or a place again. The best narratives weave in several motivations for the characters, and so we're rooting for the character to reach the end victorious.

And then there are the narratives where the author wants to let you know everything will be okay. It's like that scene in The Princess Bride (the movie, not the book) where the grandfather stops in the middle of an exciting scene to assure the sick boy that Princess Buttercup survives. The scene serves to show that the boy's gaining interest in the tale and getting more invested in the story, but his frustration is palpable. And for good reason. You don't want to learn everything will be okay until you know how that comes about. The only way to get there is by reading through the solution.

If the author frets over our stress levels and assures us it'll turn out all right, though, out goes the tension. Readers are pulled along by the question, "And then what happened?" If it doesn't matter what happens next, the tension is lost, and a person's just slogging through paragraphs and pages and chapters for no reason except that it's there. Do you really think a person is going to do that when there are literally thousands of books that do pull a reader through the narrative?

To keep the stakes high, the characters must be challenged. They must deal with several conflicts at once, all tied to their personal motivations. If you introduce a conflict that's going to serve as a barrier to success, don't solve it halfway through, or even three-quarters of the way in. Stretch out that question all the way until the end.

If you can't do that smoothly, you may want to consider tossing out that subplot altogether and coming up with something else. Because plots shouldn't function as speed bumps.

Now, there are narrative structures which allow for the solving of some subplots along the way, and which end up helping the character with the solution. That's different, and should be treated as such. But if, at the end of your story, you don't feel like your character is straining against several forces conspiring against him or her, you've robbed your reader of time and emotional investment, and probably made that reader reluctant to pick up your second book.

Not every book can have the fate of the world hanging in the balance. But, if you sling your words right, you'll have your reader feeling like it's the end of the their world if your characters don't succeed.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Reading Pet Peeves: Cliché

I've been posting a lot of reviews of debut novels, and writing that they're obviously a first novel. I thought I'd talk about what marks a book as someone's first, and therefore what to avoid. I'm going to start with a subject I've brushed over in the past, but that I haven't devoted an entire post to.

A cliché is a phrase that's overused so much that it's meaningless. It doesn't happen just in writing, but I don't know a thing about art or dance, and I think conversational clichés can serve a purpose, like giving people something familiar to connect over.

Nothing marks a new writer more distinctly than if he compares rain to tears (or vice versa), she drives her romantic pairing apart with a wacky misunderstanding, or if the text declares something to be better than sliced bread. If you're like me, you've read these plots and comparisons, and you groan and roll your eyes, and hope the next image or plot twist is better. Cliché images make the world flat and boring, while cliché plots make it predictable. You want your story to be none of these.

One's imagery can't always be sparkling and original, and, as a pantster, I've written more than my share of clichés into first drafts. That's why editing and rewriting are so important. Clichés are so embedded into our heads that they're usually the first association that pops to mind.

Incidentally, that's also how you identify them. If, as you're editing, you find your images matching up with your expectations exactly, it's time to shake things up. Try to look at what you're describing in a new way, through the mood of your perspective character. On any given day, I compare my husband to a squirrel, a robot, a tornado, a boulder, a bunny, my dad, a baby hedgehog, an otter, and a 50s housewife, depending on my mood.

As for plot, there is a difference between a well-foreshadowed plot and a cliché one, though it can be a fine line. One technique I use is to try thinking of the last five things I read or watched that had a similar plot. If any or the majority followed the exact same path as my own story, I'm falling back on a cliché, and I need to stop and rethink how I'm going about my plotting.

Often, though, the best method I have for avoiding clichés is the make note of things I'm seeing in ways I haven't seen described before. I used to write them down, but then I'd lose the notebooks or journals. Nowadays, I mostly tweet them. Now that I'm used to looking beyond the cliché, though, and always trying to come up with new ways to describe things, it comes easier.

I know I've succeeded when, in a critique with my writing group, someone remarks that something stood out, in a good way, and other people nod. Those moments are almost worth the nerve-wracking experience of being critiqued in the first place.


Review: Pygmy

Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Pygmy on audio. Unless you're really used to keeping up with audio books, I would recommend you don't do that. My husband and I took very different experiences from this book, because I'm used to keeping up with spoken word stories, where he had to intensely concentrate to follow the narrative. The style in which it's written doesn't lend itself to an inattentive, background-noise approach.

The book is written as if a non-native English speaker with a heavy philosophical background is writing reports to his higher-ups, which is precisely what Pygmy is supposed to be. On that point, this is tremendously well-written. The tone and language is consistent throughout. However, that does mean that one has to translate some of the concepts either by context, or by remembering what the narrator was talking about the last time the subject came up. If you lose the thread, you may find yourself having to back up a few paragraphs to figure out what happened. And some of it isn't explicitly revealed.

The character of Pygmy (or "Operative Me," as he refers to himself) is deliberately obfuscated. His real name is never given. His home country, city of origin, and cultural and ethnic background are intentionally left vague. Every clue which points to one country or another has another to contradict it. This saves the author having to plant the book in a certain place and time, from finger-pointing at a particular culture, and from having to get it exactly right. I didn't see it as laziness on the author's part, though. It was a deliberate tactic to call attention to the biting satire of American culture, instead, and it works.

It wouldn't be Chuck Palahniuk without some disturbing bits of prose, and this is no exception. It didn't drive me away, like a certain short story that I blame for never having read any of Palahniuk's novels before, but it was deeply discomfiting. There's a male-on-male rape scene early on in the book that is remarkable for its ability to portray the act as one of dominance, with no titillation. I can't say that about every book that involves rape, so kudos to the world's most disturbing writer. A pet dog is consumed within the text, and not because it's Pygmy's culture to cook dogs. An eye is nearly spooned out of its socket. And there's a "smart" vibrator that is purported to lower one's gas mileage, in one of the funnier bits of disturbia.

I greatly enjoyed the satire in this book, and I found it entertaining. I don't think it's for everyone, though; a dark sense of humor is definitely a requirement before you think about picking this one up. Also, be aware that the audio book may be hard to follow, and written text may go more slowly than you're accustomed to, as you have to translate and adjust to this narrator's patter.

But, if you like dark humor and satire, if you've read and liked any of Palahniuk's other books, if you're looking for something different and a little disturbing, Pygmy is an excellent choice.

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Review: On Mystic Lake

On Mystic Lake
On Mystic Lake by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The jacket blurb on the edition I read of On Mystic Lake touted it as Kristin Hannah's "hardcover debut," which is not the same as her debut novel. Until I reread the jacket description and saw that it was just her first hardcover, not her first novel, I had thought it exceptionally well-written for a first book. As a later work, though, it was still a strong book with a lot to recommend it.

There are a lot of repeating themes in the books of Kristin Hannah's I've read, and they show up here. The close mother-daughter bond is between Annie Colwater and her daughter, Natalie, who's leaving for a semester in London when the book opens. As they're pulling into the driveway, Annie's husband of 20 years, Blake, tells Annie he's in love with another woman, and wants a divorce. She goes to her childhood home way up in Washington state to recover, and meets an old friend who's even worse off than she is. His wife, her childhood best friend, killed herself eight months before, and he's been struggling with the guilt and subsequent alcoholism, while trying to raise their daughter, ever since. Annie is happy to have a project to keep her mind off her husband, and even happier to have another little girl to take care of, with how much she misses her own.

Kristin Hannah's books take place in the kind of world where awful, terrible, traumatic things happen, but where healing is possible, and where answers to deep emotional scars can be as pat as coming to your senses one day. Generally, the books follow the journey to that realization, which often means things have to get worse before they can improve. At the end of the day, though, people are going to get the happy ever after they deserve.

In this book, I would've liked to have read more of that happy ever after, and less of the main character's speculation about how it'll go. I would've liked to have seen it played out as more than a fantasy.

Overall, though, I found this book to be a touching, emotional journey where we explore love and loss and grief and recovery, and come out okay on the other side. I like that Kristin Hannah rarely writes about easy problems or simple solutions, but ones that require growth to overcome. Her later books make the direction of that growth less obvious to the reader, but this earlier book is still worth the read.

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Review: No Place Like Home

No Place Like Home
No Place Like Home by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is another short story set in the InCryptid universe, and available for now free on the author's website. It continues the narrative of Jonathan Healy and Frances Brown, as they reach the Healy home in Buckley Township, Michigan, and Fran gets to meet the family.

Unless it's covered in "The Flower of Arizona," this is the first long look we get of the Healy home from inside it. Fran's outsider perspective calls a lot of details to light that the rest of the family might take for granted. The story is told entirely through her eyes, and so we get a good idea of just how bizarre this family is. Just a glimpse in the barn would've sent most people running for the hills, but Fran proves she's made of sterner stuff, and therefore that she's worthy of sticking around. Not that she knows if she will.

The story centers around her decision of what to do next, and, if you've read Discount Armageddon and/or read the family tree, you already know how that ends. Still, it's fun to watch the story unfold, and to see how part of family lore came to be. Also, the Aeslin mice play a greater role in this story than in "One Hell of a Ride," so it's worth picking up for that reason alone.

Again, this story is available as a free download, and it's a very quick read, so you have very little to lose even if it's not your thing. I'm willing to bet that, if you haven't already added Discount Armageddon to your to-read list, you'll do it on the strength of these short stories.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Naming Characters

One of the things we discussed in this month's writing group was names. The person being critiqued had chosen some names that started with the same letter and had the same number of syllables. We cautioned her to keep the characters far apart in the narrative, lest she confuse readers.

I've had a similar problem in my own writing. I have a character whose name I haven't figured out yet. I've figured out which names don't work, because I've been typing up scenes where she interacts with other characters, and I've gotten confused about who's doing what. That's a really bad sign. If you must have characters whose names begin with a similar sound, at least make them have different numbers of syllables.

To come up with names in the first place, I have all kinds of sources. I found one name on a gravestone. Another name is one I've always liked. Others are people I've met and liked, but won't be interacting with in the future. (I don't pick people I know, because I'd rather not explain to people that, yes, I used your name, but this character is nothing like you.)

The best name sources, though, are baby name sites and census information. If I want a character to have a common name, I look at the top 25 most common names for the year the character was born. If I want the character's name to give a hint to his or her identity, I do a reverse lookup on a baby name site for the definition I want, and look for a name that fits. I keep a running tally of character's names, especially ones who interact, and I make sure they're not going to be confused with one another.

With last names, I go for rhythm. A character with a one-syllable first and last name is flat and uninteresting, which fits for the characters who are trying to have a low profile. A character who's a handful might get a complicated first and last name. Generally, though, I try to balance them. A polysyllabic first name will usually get matched up with a one-syllable last name, and vice versa. Also, I never start a last name with a vowel if the person's first name ends with one, and I make sure names don't otherwise blend. As someone who's been called "Allison" for most of my life, I'm rather emphatic on that point. Do not use names that blend together, unless you want people mishearing your character's name within the narrative.

I did stumble across one more resource for character names: the Everchanging Book of Names. It's a free download, and they encourage comments about its utility, so I would urge you to do so if you use it. It's of particular use for those of you writing fantasy or science fiction.

Most baby books and name census information will be available with a quick Google search, and there isn't one in particular I use. This one is useful in that it allows you to specify the number of syllables and what the name begins and ends with. This site allows you to search by meaning. Almost all of the sites want to congratulate you on your pregnancy, so be prepared to ignore everything but the name generator portion of the page. (From the comments, there's also Behind the Name, which allows you to search by nationality as well as meaning.)

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The best thing I can say about this book was that I got to listen to the audio version. Wil Wheaton's narration made a lot of the cringeworthy aspects of an uneven debut worth listening to, though I was still unable to overlook the book's flaws. The book had its moments, but, in the end, the target audience was too fringe, the fanboy pandering too blatant, for me to recommend this to anyone but hardcore fanboys.

If you've heard of this book, you already know the premise: dystopian future, video game contest to win billions of dollars, hard-luck kid winds up first on the scoreboard. It is an intriguing premise, and the world-building is solid. The technology is even plausible, and it's easy to wrap one's mind around the notion of a virtual reality world everyone immerses themselves in to escape the depressing reality of their lives.

However, rather than trust the reader to make the mental leap, the writer devotes the first six chapters to setting up a world that isn't incredibly alien. Nothing of interest happens in those six chapters, except that Wade Owen Watts dumps a ton of info on top of your head and expects you to care as much as he does about his obsession. He reminds me of every fanboy who's ever driven me from a comic shop by relating the minutiae of their latest WOW quest and ignoring my requests to change the conversation. There's a reason why this shirt exists.

I started off disliking the main perspective character, and he never grew on me. I never felt a sense of investment in his survival or success. This isn't helped one bit by the fact that his life is never in danger. Even when he's threatened, he's safe and sound. There's one section where his personal safety is in question, and that's quickly and handily waved away by the arrival of a character on the scene who has all the resources Wade needs to be secure again.

The game, itself, is a nerd-boy power fantasy. Who wouldn't love to score points for knowing every line from War Games? Well, anyone who likes War Games for being a cool story, not pieces of dialogue to memorize. The approach sucks all the fun out of things I'm normally interested in. As interesting as the factoids were to learn as we go along, that they're points being scored and measured against other players soured my taste for them. Lots of fanboys love bickering over who knows more about the things they like, but statistics and minutiae don't make up the love of a pursuit. I like to enjoy pursuits because they're fun, not to add ammo to my argument about why so-and-so isn't a true fan.

I also objected to the treatment of women in the story. In the 30 years of future history this book covers, apparently there isn't a single woman producing anything worthy of Wade's remembering it. Also, while there are female characters within the story, the narrator makes it clear that they're an anomaly. He throws out the statement that the vast majority of Gunters (a portmanteau of "egg hunters") are male, and this is never questioned within the narrative. Art3mis, the girl with the largest role in the book, is there to serve as a love interest, a prize to be won by pushing the right selections in the drop-down conversation menu. (I kept waiting for the message to flash across his screen: "Art3mis is impressed with your honesty! +5 to Relationship XP!") He projects his image of who he thinks she is, and I was dissatisfied with the resolution of that shortsightedness.

I never got the idea that female characters were there for any reason other than as token characters, and the depiction of one was particularly problematic. As the character's appearance is a spoiler, I'll discuss that in my blog's comments to this post.

There were redeeming features of this book, despite my numerous complaints, and not just Mr. Wheaton's lovely narration. The straightforward style in which this book is written evokes a lot of the source material. It's written much like a straightforward rendering of a WOW quest, or like a D&D module without the pesky stats and treasure charts. As much as I complain about that above, at least it's consistent.

I did find the narrative predictable, and that twist of a character reveal was telegraphed from a mile away. On the other hand, I did still feel narrative tension. I didn't want to know what happened, I wanted to know how it happened. That I hated the narrator and felt no sense of danger stopped mattering, as I wondered what the next puzzle would be and how it would be solved.

Last, this author did his homework. This book is crammed full of things you probably didn't know about the 1980s, music, video games, anime, kaiju, computers, pop culture, and everything a geek could want to know. The game world seamlessly blends so many aspects of late-20th-century geekdom that there's something to please everyone in there. We even get crossover throwdowns that I know geeks like to endlessly speculate about.

Sadly, I am not the target audience of this book, and the narrative went out of its way to show me that, by appealing so much to its fanboy base. If you express your love of things by memorizing every minute detail of it, or if you've spent more than 24 hours at a stretch logged into your WOW account, this book would probably appeal to you. Memorizing tiny details you may or may not care about scores a person a lot of points in Ready Player One.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Question of Building a Brand

I've heard several conflicting pieces of advice about whether I should post reviews, as a wannabe author. After all, if I say something negative about a book an agent represents, and that agent remembers me when I submit, I've shot myself in the foot. If I spark an author meltdown, I could also be remembered for the wrong reasons.

On the other hand, I'm consistent, and I don't pick on anyone. I try to post fair and accurate assessments of a book, so that people who like those kinds of things know to alter my rating depending on their own preferences. I'm biased, but at least I'm transparent about my biases.

Also, it seems like an awful lot of people stumble across my blog because of the reviews. I like people reading what I wrote, so that's the biggest reason why I'm unlikely to stop writing reviews. Should I pick up a writing contract and a publisher and/or agent says to knock it off, I'll probably change my mind.

I follow a lot of authors wherever they've made themselves easy to follow, though, and very few of them post book reviews. They rarely shy away from expressing other negative views in public, but I can imagine that disagreeing with another author, indirectly and without identifying them, is a far cry from having posted that one didn't enjoy the latest publication. It's this bit of evidence that had me most questioning my decision to post reviews.

In the end, though, the fact that Goodreads will duplicate my reviews onto my blog for general consumption is the whole reason I have this blog in the first place. That I'm tacking on my ramblings about writing and craft and grammar and whatnot is because I felt like there should be something else. Writing out the reviews in a way that'll make them palatable on my blog has me thinking more deeply about what I'm reading, though, and more strongly identifying what I like, what I didn't, and why it worked (or didn't). It has me reading as a writer, or at least better able to articulate my preferences and what I notice about craft in my reviews. I've read back through my old reviews, and my latest reviews are a lot more coherent, and I write them faster than I used to.

Beginning writers nowadays are often given the advice to start a blog, in order to build a brand. I don't think my blog is quite what they'd advise. It's helping me, nonetheless, though probably not in the way they mean.

Review: One Hell of a Ride

One Hell of a Ride
One Hell of a Ride by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a short story, available currently on the author's website for free download. It's set in the InCryptid universe, several generations before the events of Discount Armageddon. This is set after the events of "The Flower of Arizona," another short story available in the Westward Weird anthology.

I didn't read "The Flower of Arizona," so I'm reviewing this from the standpoint of lacking all the context. Even from that perspective, though, it's still amusing, and you can follow it without the back story. It's clear that Jonathan Healy, with a lot of help from Frances Brown, killed a Questing Beast, and is headed back home to Michigan. This story follows their train journey, where they're flipped into a hell dimension because of a glitch in a shortcut taken by the railroads to cut costs. Jonathan and Fran have to fight their way back out to their home dimension, and not be eaten by border imps along the way.

The Aeslin Mice make an appearance, albeit a short one, and the Healy tendency to protect sentient cryptids is firmly entrenched in Jonathan, the latest generation in this wild west timeline.

I found this a quick and entertaining tale which did a lot to keep me wanting more from the InCryptid universe. It's fun, seeing which family member Verity inherited which trait from, and Fran is a heroine to root for. She doesn't know all of what's going on, unlike Jonathan, but she takes it in stride.

If you're interested at all in the InCryptid story, I would highly recommend that you treat yourself to a free copy. All you'll be out is a few minutes of reading time. In exchange, you get a thoroughly enjoyable story.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reading for Pleasure

Image of statue children reading thanks to Hans at pixabay
It seems like, every few months, we get some exhortation about reading classics, literary fiction, and similarly "highbrow" offerings. I've read lots of blog posts sneering down at "genre" readers, and I have a co-worker who likes to tease me about reading "children's books," after I struck up a conversation with another co-worker in the office about Hunger Games.

I read a lot, and very few of the books I read are literary fiction. Precious few of the books are reviewed in famous publications. I don't read for validation, or because everyone else is reading it. Chances are good that, if everyone loved it, I'll find it off-putting, at best.

When I read, it's to enjoy the story. Unpleasant things can happen to the main character, and the narrative can be full of events I don't enjoy, but, overall, if I'm not enjoying the words on some level, I'm not going to be happy. That slows down my reading pace overall, and then I need something fun to wash out the bad taste. I went almost a year without reading after college, because I'd had so many unpleasant narratives that were supposedly good for me crammed down my throat. When I hear "good for you," I think vegetables, and I don't like those, either. I'm a supertaster, and vegetables register as poison to my poor, bitter-sensitive taste buds.

That's not to say I don't read classics. I'm still surprised how much I enjoyed Crime and Punishment and Grapes of Wrath as assigned reading in high school, and you can have my Shakespeare only after I've thrown the rest of my library at you in defense. I didn't read any Jane Austen until after college, but I've loved everything of hers I've read, and The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my all-time favorite books.

Those are the exceptions, though. For the most part, I steer clear of literary novels, and I regard most books marketed toward my demographic warily. Technically, those are another genre, that of "chick lit," and today isn't the day for a rant on the division of "real" fiction and that enjoyed by women.

It turns out that there's a precedent for my reading preferences. This article in the NYT strikes me as having a fair dose of Missing the Point. It skitters over the notion that we experience the characters' lives as if we're interacting with them, socially, and mentions that people who read generally have more empathy. But does that finding not suggest to you, dear fellow readers, that we experience the events of the book as if they're happening to us? Therefore, perhaps there's nothing at all unseemly about wanting a pleasant narrative to be carried through. The article suggests our lives are more enriched by more literary writing, but I think stimulating the imagination is important no matter how it's accomplished.

My point about reading to write still stands. It's important to read, especially in your chosen genre, if you want to write. But I'm not suggesting that as homework. It so happens that everyone I've ever spoken to about writing also loves to read. I think the two go hand-in-hand. If you enjoy a genre, you'll want to write about it. I find it curious that bloggers and writers feel a need to prescribe reading like a pill. I think it helps to look at books with craft in mind, and that's helped me untangle a lot of problems with my own prose, but I don't see them explaining that part. Apparently, it's only important to read in the first place.

Well. If you're anything like every writer I've ever spoken with, it won't be a problem for you. And, if you're like me, and you're reading for pleasure while you're at it, I can't say I blame you one little bit.

Review: The Thirteen Clocks

The Thirteen Clocks
The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked this book up on io9's recommendation. Had I read it when I was younger, and was looking back and finally getting some of the jokes, I might have a different appreciation. But, reading this as an adult, I was mostly puzzled about why it was so highly regarded.

It may be standing in my way that I'm not a Thurber fan. I just didn't think "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was funny any of the eight times it was assigned reading in high school and college, and I saw no reason to seek out anything else Thurber had written. I guess his humor is either the sort one finds uproariously funny, or you frown, scratch your head, and wonder if you were supposed to laugh.

The Thirteen Clocks isn't without its amusement value, and, as a gentle satire of fairy tales and children's picture books, it was entertaining.

Despite my sense that this book was Not For Me, though, I could tell that it was a story well-told. It was constructed nicely, the language often poetic. I got the feeling that the author enjoyed writing it.

The story is a good example of how to conduct a whole new fairy tale without invoking or rehashing the classics. The absurdity of the story is very much in keeping with stories passed down through generations. In it, a Princess is kept in a castle with thirteen stopped clocks, and her uncle the Duke finds ways to kill or turn away her suitors. Then one day, a Prince disguised as a minstrel comes along, determined to win the Princess's hand.

By all rights, I should've enjoyed this book far more than I did. I see no reason to not recommend that you read it to your younger children (though not TOO young; there are some scary parts), and try to enjoy it for yourself. At the very least, it's a departure from that book they insist you read to them every single night.

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Review: In the Blood

In the Blood
In the Blood by Nancy A. Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book more than Sunglasses After Dark. I thought it was more tightly-plotted, and it has a happier ending. There's far less of the confusing dream/flashback/trippy stuff from Sunglasses After Dark, which makes more room for plot.

In Sunglasses After Dark, we meet Sonja Blue, a vampire who never died, which is rare and strange. Therefore, she lives with a foot in both worlds, and has the split personality to prove it. She's capable of great violence, but she has pesky human emotions holding her back from being just like every other Pretender (non-human critter passing for human).

In the Blood continues Sonja's story. She's searching for Morgan, the monster who unwittingly created her following a violent rape. She has a private detective following her, set on her trail by the ancient vampire Pangloss. Palmer, the detective, is just out of prison for his supposed involvement in a murder plot, and he's started to see things he can't explain.

This book has a greater variety of Pretenders. There are a few demons Sonja interacts with, there's a kitsune, past lives play a part, and the seraphim make another appearance, with an expanded role. There are also ghosts inhabiting a bizarrely-constructed haunted house, calling to mind Stephen King's Rose Red (doubtless inspired by the same source material). It serves to flesh out the world, and fill the page count with a lot more than disturbing rape and violence and subjugation.

While the climactic battle does take place psychically, as in the first book, I found it easier to follow in this book than in the previous. I also felt more invested in Sonja's success, that the stakes were higher for her failure. Morgan is pure evil, and his every action, every choice within the book reinforces that he deserves to be destroyed. That investment kept me up well into the wee hours, flipping pages to find out what happens next.

This book brings out more of Sonja's human side, but we still see flashes of the monster she is underneath. Palmer is equally attracted and repulsed, and we can't blame him.

I've already added the next book to my to-reads. After the first, I wasn't sure if I could stomach the violence and rape enough to go through the whole series. But, if all of the following books are as good at this one, it's well worth it.

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