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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Recap for May 2012

This month, I signed up to participate in a giveaway hop (you won't see anything more about it until 6/23), I drove to Tennessee and back where I picked up the Tennessee Death Plague, and I moved to a Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday updating schedule.

Here are the specifics:

Book Reviews
Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich (4/5 stars; nonfiction investigative; audio book)—The author of Nickel and Dimed takes on corporate America, and never gets past the job hunt. One of the books contributing to the political climate that's produced the Occupy movement.

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire (4/5 stars; debut urban fantasy detective; reread; audio)—Introduces half-fae detective Toby Daye, who has to figure out a friend's killer before the curse her friend laid before dying takes Toby's life. It's a debut, but it's clear why this is the author who would become my favorite.

A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire (4/5 stars; urban fantasy detective; reread; audio)—Second installment of Toby Daye's story. She's been ordered by her liege to investigate why he can't seem to get hold of his niece. Becomes a tightly-plotted locked-door mystery with a twist I didn't see coming the first time I read it.

Naked in Death by J. D. Robb (2/5 stars; near-future detective/romance/thriller)—Nora Roberts' incredibly popular alter ego's first installment about detective Eve Dallas, who lives in the year 2058. Lots of people love this series, so the fact that I won't touch it again puts me in the minority.

Write More Good: An Absolutely Phony Guide by The Bureau Chiefs (4/5 stars; humor)—A funny twitter feed about grammar standards in journalism in changing times expands into a very readable fake AP guide. Better to read if you have a journalism background, but the jokes aren't too far over the rest of our heads.

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah (2/5 stars; contemporary; audio)—I usually like Hannah's books, so I'll forgive that her pairing of the atrocities of war with white whine only trivializes the war story. This time.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (4/5 stars; YA alternate history with steampunk elements; audio)—A well-paced adventure about teenagers in an alternate-history WWI. Ends on a cliffhanger.

An Ice Cold Grave by Charlaine Harris (2/5 stars; paranormal mystery; audio)—With this installment of the Harper Connelly stories, I give up. Not-related-by-blood incest doesn't have to be gross, but in this book, it is.

Little, Big by John Crowley (2/5 stars; classic magical realism)—Was probably revolutionary in its day, but reads like a dusty old relic when compared with modern fast-paced urban fantasy. Too in love with its language to bother illuminating the reader.

Fed by Mira Grant (4/5 stars; alternate ending to dystopian horror novel; available online for free)—The alternate ending to Feed; clears up any notion you might have that Feed needed a different ending. No, the real ending was better. Yikes.

Most Popular Posts in May
Grammar: Hyphen Use was, predictably enough, how to correctly use hyphens. It's probably the most boring post I wrote all month, but apparently it proved useful to several dozen people.

I expected Writing About Rape to take the #1 slot. I guess I'm not that interesting a ranter. Ah, well. I'm still glad I wrote it. I feel better.

My Review of Let's Pretend This Never Happened is still pulling in a decent number of hits. Considering how well the book is selling (and that my husband and I have a waiting list for our copy), I'm unsurprised.

Lots of people want to know what happens next on So You Want to Be a Pantster. Either that, or they Googled for pictures of butts.

My April Recap post drew a number of views. Wait, more than a pet peeve post? Hunh.

Pet Peeves: Too Stupid to Live came in next on the list, so not a lot of people know about the dialogue I hold with books I don't like.

Theme vs. Message tackled the difference between having an idea in mind as you write, and beating the reader over the head with it. One of those is advisable, the other not. Guess which is which?

I wrote about the Unexpected Benefits of Pessimism as a writer. It's certainly come in handy for me.

I posted about how you can Read Backwards for your detail-level pass of edits. I tried it out before I went telling anyone it was useful. It works really well.

My post about Reading Comprehension and the fact that some readers have none was in direct reference to a comment thread I'd been reading. Not that I mentioned that in the post.

Last, my Grammar Peeve about Dangling Modifiers seems to have proved useful to a few people. At least, I hope so, because I'm tired of reading them.

It was hot last weekend. Poor, fluffy Risu.
This has nothing to do with the post. I just think she's cute.

Review: A Local Habitation (October Daye #2) by Seanan McGuire


A Local Habitation
A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I read the paper version of this book when it first came out. My review is here. I was on a long car trip, and so I listened to the audio version, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal. It's not that different an experience; Ms. Kowal's narration doesn't detract from the story, and she's pleasant to listen to for hours on end. She's not how I heard Toby's voice, but she's not jarringly different, either, and I kept forgetting that I'd first heard her voice on the Writing Excuses podcast.

What struck me the most about this reading was the pacing. I know I remarked on it in my other review, but it's even more noticeable when I can't skim ahead to make sure everything works out okay. My mother, who listened to the book with me, actually yelled at the stereo when there was a brief pause for switching discs, right in the middle of the summoning scene.

As in Rosemary and Rue, there are a lot of clues to the deeper story, and a lot of hints to the revelations to come. Information is gleaned from the night haunts, and there are some tantalizing hints that it goes even deeper than that. Seanan McGuire was setting up a lot of later revelations from the very start of the series, and it's fun to go back and find those breadcrumbs. I'm sure there are even more hints of what's to come, but I'm enjoying discovering things as they're revealed.

I plan on rereading all of the October Daye books before Ashes of Honor comes out in September. These books lend themselves to rereading quite well.



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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Review: Fed (Newsflesh Trilogy #1.5) by Mira Grant


Fed
Fed by Mira Grant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Fed is an alternative timeline of the end of Feed. If you think the real ending was an emotional punch in the gut, wait until you read how it could've happened. Fed is available for free on Facebook if you "Like" this page.

Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) has often hinted that she knows what would've happened if Feed had ended differently. In Deadline, there's a reference to the figurehead working for the bad guys having been planted to specifically prey on one scenario. Mira Grant has said in interviews that the ending to Feed was what it needed.

I must say, this alternative isn't what I imagined. I imagined someone being more apt to relax her guard, to the bad guy getting away, to perhaps an outbreak during the Republican National Convention.

That isn't what happens here. What does happen is a huge spoiler for the real ending, though, so I won't discuss it in any further detail. If you read and liked Feed, I recommend that you read this alternative, as well. Fed contains significant spoilers for Feed, as many of the events that occur in Feed also occur in the alternate-universe version.

Where it matters, though, the story veers sharply, and some might say disturbingly. I was pretty well braced from the original ending, but it still broadsided me. So be warned.

She's right, though. The ending we got to Feed was the one that needed to happen. This story, if nothing else, hammers that home.



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The Learning Curve

I've already mentioned that college isn't necessarily the best place to learn how to write. The most useful thing I learned in college was how to learn, and I think a relatively intelligent person can learn that without going tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

So how does one learn to write, then, aside from simply practicing until you're good at it?

There are a lot of resources that weren't as readily available when I started college. If you're reading this, you have internet access, and therefore access to auditing online courses (link goes to MIT's courses), looking up information on whatever you need (link is snarky), and finding dozens of blogs devoted to something you need clarified. If that isn't enough, there are message boards devoted to many, many interests, forums where you can get feedback on your writing, and comment threads galore. The authors I feel most engaged with are the ones who blog or use Twitter (links go to outside blogs), and they're often transparent about their processes and how they learned their craft.

If you've done all that, though, and you can't figure out where you're going wrong, it's time to submit for a critique. That may be as basic as an alpha or beta reader, it may mean joining a writing group, or it may mean paying a professional to bleed red ink on your manuscript. (Be aware that you'll be paying that person to hurt your feelings. Choose wisely.) It can be uncomfortable, even painful, to have other people pick apart your writing, but growth often comes from discomfort and pain. As I mention here, you'll be motivated to change to keep from repeating such a painful experience.

The good news is, if all your feedback is about grammar or spelling, that's the easiest thing to fix. Your local library will have a style manual (outside link) or Strunk and White (Google books link), which are good places to start. Grammar is fairly straightforward, and there are rules you can learn. Once you've learned them, you have poetic license, and can do whatever you want with them.

I know I harp on grammar a lot on here, but it's not because it's the most important thing, or the hardest, or that I'm smarter than you (because I bet I'm not). It's because I'm a grammar prescriptivist with a decent background in writing mechanics. If you didn't learn these things in your public school years, you can still go back and learn them, and there's nothing to be embarrassed about. Or, you can pay someone to fix it for you, and my fellow grammar prescriptivist will be happy for the paycheck.

The second easiest thing to fix is word choice. There are words you use in business emails that you wouldn't use in Facebook posts, and vice versa. The same applies when you're setting a tone in what you're writing. If you're using a lot of sibilant syllables to describe what Handsome Love Interest says in Fair Heroine's ear, well, I hope it wasn't meant to be sexy, because she'll be wiping his spittle off the side of her face at her earliest convenience. Reading aloud can catch most language that sounds off, and giving your manuscript some space will usually take care of the rest. (I'll talk about that more next month, when I write a series of blog posts on editing.)

There are a lot more common issues that new writers run up against, but those two are the easiest to fix. I bring them up only to reassure you that, even though improvement sounds like a monumentally difficult task, once you're done learning a skill, you'll have a new tool at your disposal. Learning to write is a constant process, and you never stop. You just find a new skill to work on. You always know when that happens, because writing will feel more difficult again.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Review: Little, Big by John Crowley


Little, Big
Little, Big by John Crowley

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



Out of 538 pages, this book has perhaps 20 I'd call good. They are not consecutive.

I picked this up because it was on io9's list of 10 Books Every Fantasy Author Should Read. So now I know where not to get my book recommendations in the future.

The book follows several generations of Drinkwaters who live in the fictional town of Edgewood in a house that appears to be a different structure from each side. The Drinkwaters play some part in a larger Tale, which means that everything they do is Somehow Important. Why does anyone do anything they do? For Reasons, okay?

If you want emotional engagement in a book, you're looking in the wrong place. This book actively resists any emotional verity. It pushes the reader away, actively. It starts off with a sweet love story about Smoky Barnable and Daily Alice Drinkwater, but he cheats on her before the story's halfway point. Why? Because the Tale says so.

I kept reading because I expected illumination by the end. Instead, we get a stuttering conversation between two sisters, who step around any answers with, "Well, I want to tell you, but . . ." for three damn pages. And that really stands in for most of the book. People do things for no reason, they talk around whatever the reader really wants to know, and wax poetic about things that may well have something to do with that inscrutable conclusion.

The language, by the way, can be quite poetic and pretty. But when the poetic meandering is about how much it sucks to be dumped YEARS later, or about the romance of a drunken bender where a guy sleeps with his lost lover's brother, I'm less than enchanted. It struck me as pseudo-intellectual BS, the prose too in love with itself to bother engaging the reader.

I had hoped for illumination, for this journey to be worth it by the end. Instead, I felt jerked around for 538 pages. I understood the ending just fine, but I didn't think it was worth all the enigmatic mutterings to get there.

If you like your narratives inscrutable and pointless, by all means, slog through this. If you're reading this, though, and wondering if it's worth finishing, save yourself and stop now. It may well be good for you to read, but that doesn't mean you have to waste the hours and hours and hours it'll take you to wade through it if you don't like it.



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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Tightening Your Timeline

We had a writing group meeting today, and we critiqued a piece that wasn't mine. We raised a lot of points about the story, but the one I wanted to discuss in general, because I brought it up and the critique victim is still chewing on the notion, is about tightening the timeline. This post isn't specifically referencing the problems in the piece we critiqued.

Many books start in medias res, which is Latin for "into the middle of things." That means that there isn't any introduction of characters, setting, or premise. The reader is dropped into the story without warning, and things are dropped in as they're relevant. I'm not saying you should write everything in medias res, because it's not for all stories. If you want a reader's attention from the very start, and you have to pack a lot of action in, it's great. But it can also be confusing, and you risk losing readers if you withhold illumination too long.

There is something to be learned from it, though, even if your pacing is more meandering. You don't have to do breakneck-pace plotting for people to love your book. However, if your characters are regularly navel-gazing and passing the time until the conclusion, you will frustrate people.

If chapters pass between events and revelations, you have to ask yourself if those intervening scenes where nothing happens are necessary. Conversations that serve to highlight a revelation's importance, or to convey it to a character who doesn't know it yet, read as tedious and repetitive. If a reader already knows something, it's fine to summarize in later conversations about it. If you have a conversation taking place over pages and pages with nothing of importance discussed, it's fine to write, "They discussed the weather, then she stared out the window, trying to come up with something interesting to say."

Often, scenes can be condensed down to the important part, pieces of information can be slipped into later scenes, and, if you're a pantster, you've started the book at least two chapters early. By that I mean, if you chop off the first two chapters, you're starting in just the right place. Sometimes, it's just one. Others, it's three or four. But, if you haven't outlined, figured out the world, and mapped everything out, there's a good chance that your first chapter or two is your getting into the voice and heads of your characters, and figuring out your new world.

I've heard it said that every scene in a novel should serve at least two purposes. A dialogue between two characters shouldn't just convey a piece of information to the reader. It should also reinforce your theme, show the characters' relationship, and maybe even lend insight into one or both characters. There should be a lot going on in all your scenes.

If it seems to you there isn't enough happening in your story, consider pushing up the precipitating event. If you're waiting too long for the villain to act, then have him acting behind the scenes before the story even begins. Raise the stakes, put your hero in more danger, or add a subplot or two.

But, for goodness' sake, don't have your character reviewing what she knows for chapters at a time. I'll throw your book if you do that. I promise.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pantster Pitfalls

I've already mentioned a few of the drawbacks for being a pantster. After yesterday's post, though, I thought it might be a good idea to collect them all in one place, so you have some reasons for not taking the easy road to your writing style.

  1. The Rewriting—I may well be an extraordinary case with my constant rewrites, but I don't think so. When I start a new draft, I don't know how the story will end. I don't know which characters will be the most important, which settings will require further description, or what I'll have to research as I go. That means that the first draft needs a lot of work after it's done. I can't deliberately foreshadow an ending I don't know (though often the ending will come from foreshadowing I've already slipped in). I can't write to a theme I don't yet recognize. My writing could very well be the best it's ever been, but the draft will be a useless mess before I've done some heavy rewriting.
  2. The Waste of Time—I have typed out huge swaths of dialogue that have gone nowhere. Entire scenes served no narrative purpose, and had to be scrapped. I imagine this happens to all writers, pantster or outliner, but I bet it happens with far more regularity if you don't know, as you're writing, whether something will be important or not. I can't consult my outline as I'm going along to make sure I'm on track. And, if I realize halfway through that the story isn't what I thought it was, all I can do is swear and write to what the story is really about, then fix the first half later.
  3. The Difficulty of Planning—I can't set aside a longer period of time to write a difficult scene, because they sneak up on me. One minute my characters are having a grand old time, then I realize this is the perfect moment for my baddie to catch my protagonist unawares. Next thing I know, it's 3 AM, and the cat's given up on miaowing at me and fallen asleep. (Yes, my cat nags me to go to bed. No, it's no more effective than you'd imagine.)
  4. The Forgetting—Just because I write by the seat of my pants doesn't mean there's no planning that goes into what I write. Often, I'll get a flash of inspiration for a scene I have to write, and then I write the characters toward that scene. But sometimes, I forget that awesome line I wanted to put into my character's mouth. Or, I forget the great scene I mentally plotted for a side character that makes it worth his inclusion in the story. I don't have this stuff written down, unless I've happened to jot it down in a note that I haven't subsequently lost. (Pantsters, disorganized? Gasp.) I have no idea how many good ideas I've lost to the black hole of my memory, or whether they were any good, but it's more than one or two. The good part about this is, it motivates me to keep writing, at least to "the good part," so I don't forget.
  5. The Finishing—As I mentioned yesterday, if you're a pantster, you're at your happiest when you're following your characters to find out what happens next. When you do figure out the ending, though, things can get dangerous. You're no longer wondering what happens next, because now you know, and the fun part is over. Now you have to knuckle down and write it. So there's all that work ahead of you, and none of the reward of getting to find something new. It can be difficult to feel like writing then, and the lure of new projects will be strong, because the fun part still remains in those stories. It can be overcome with some willpower and finding things to discover about the ending, and looking forward to tightening up the story, but it is a hurdle.
I'm sure I've forgotten something, and it is possible outliners share some of the same issues. Every person's method is going to have its drawbacks; there's no One True Way to Write. I just know pantsters, and how my chosen method has gotten in my way. Overall, though, it works for me, and I can usually find a way to work around things, or turn them to my advantage. The trick is to find the method you'll enjoy enough that it'll be worth the pitfalls.

Herc, the nagging cat.

Review: An Ice Cold Grave by Charlaine Harris


An Ice Cold Grave
An Ice Cold Grave by Charlaine Harris

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



In An Ice Cold Grave, Harper Connelly is in the fictional town of Doraville, NC, which is described as being near Asheville. Several young men have gone missing, and Harper is called in to find one in particular. That doesn't take her long, but then forces conspire to keep her there, and she feel compelled to solve the mystery of who would kill all those boys in the violent way she senses. While she's trapped in a lake cabin during an ice storm, she and her not-related-by-blood brother confess their feelings for one another, and consummate the relationship Harper has wanted since at least the last book.

Ewwwww.

Okay, so intellectually, I know Harper and Tolliver aren't related by blood, and therefore there's no incest taboo to be broken, here. But the relationship between them still had me squirming in discomfort. I felt like their platonic, sibling-like bond was fairly well established in the previous books. So to have it turn into a physical relationship in this book left me thoroughly grossed out. I never felt sexual tension between them, or like the "love" Harper describes had a physical aspect to it. Then, suddenly, she's describing his penis in loving detail and talking wistfully about his "dick." Yes, she uses that word. So in addition to feeling gross about listening in graphic detail to these two boning, I was left questioning her emotional maturity, too.

From a writing standpoint, too, I found the book lacking. Harper annoyed me with her constant bellybutton-gazing as she reviews all the crucial things she knows for the reader, there's far too much time taken up in the narrative on puttering, and her constant attention on politeness grated. The woman is hit on the head with a shovel, and she's obsessed with not coming across as grumpy to the parade that marches through her hospital room. It shows a curious set of priorities, at the very least.

There are constant references to things that are going to come up in later books (how handy psychics are, when one wants to smack the reader over the head with foreshadowing), but there's no movement toward solving those mysteries yet. If they're half as plodding as this narrative, I want nothing to do with them.

I'm stopping with this book, because my sense of curiosity in those greater mysteries doesn't override my squick factor with the physical relationship between the siblings-by-marriage. I really don't want to have to sit through another sex scene that makes me throw up in my mouth.



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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

So You Want to Be a Pantster

The good news is, the point of entry for becoming a pantster is easier than becoming an outliner. To become a pantster, all you have to do is put your butt in the chair, turn off the internet, and bang out a draft.

Then another draft.

Then another draft.

I don't know if I'd have my perpetual rewrite habit as solidly ingrained if I'd learned to outline before I learned how to finish a story.  For us pantsters, the first draft is basically a huge, time-consuming outline. If you're a pantster, though, that won't bother you, because banging out that first draft is the most fun you'll have while writing. That's the part of writing you live for: discovering what comes next. There will be moments of excitement with later drafts as you make connections, clarify themes, flesh out your characters, find a gem of information in your research, and discover more tools you've left yourself to work with in building a solid story. But, for the most part, you're at your happiest when you're first testing out your characters in the world you've built them.

If the idea of writing and rewriting the same story perhaps a dozen times sounds tedious to you, though, you may want to rethink following in my footsteps. If the notion of discovering something midway through your draft that changes everything about the story (and therefore that you'll have to go back and fix) sounds like your worst nightmare, pantstering is probably not for you. If you break out in cold sweats at the notion of exploring a new place without a map, and you need every second of your vacation time planned out, you're probably not a born pantster. I am a cautionary tale, rather than a role model, for you.

There's nothing wrong with outlining. Lots of writers do it, and it seems to save them time. Many writers even enjoy writing the outline the same way I enjoy producing my zero draft.

You know you're a pantster, though, if you try outlining, and you don't feel like writing the story anymore once the outline is there. As one person in my writing group remarked, it feels like all the fun's been sucked out, once you have an outline.

You won't know which you are, though, if you don't try both methods. As easy as pantstering sounds, I strongly advise that you try outlining a story before writing it at least once. Start with a short story, and try several different methods. One of the outliners in the writing group recommends the snowflake method (outside link), while others use programs like Scrivener (vendor link), or those more oriented toward pretty graphics might use mind maps (outside link) or other physical representations. You can also just type up a few paragraphs of where you see the story starting, who the main characters are, and where the story goes from there. No need to make it overly complicated.

My point is, you don't know whether you can outline or not if you don't try. I'm too deeply ingrained in my pantster ways to do that kind of about-face, though later projects may necessitate my having to learn to outline. It's easy to fall into the habit of writing by the seat of your pants.

Don't be a pantster just because it's easier than finding out if outlining is a better method for you. Be a pantster because you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that's how you write.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Conflict

As we all know, conflict is a part of every story. It's what pulls the plot along, if not comprises the entire plot. Some will tell you there should be conflict in every scene, every piece of dialogue, every paragraph, but that sounds exhausting to read. I think a boring scene can be spiced up by adding in conflict, and the most fun I have while writing is when two characters are butting heads, but I do like to give it a rest, every once in a while.

But where does that conflict come from in the first place? On the most basic level, you should have a conflict between the protagonist and antagonist. What puts them into those neat boxes in the first place is that they have opposing goals, and they can't both get what they want. There's only one MacGuffin (link goes to Wikipedia), the love interest is strictly monogamous, someone has to die to fulfill the prophecy who Our Hero has vowed to keep alive. You also look at internal conflict: a philosophical clash, a need the protagonist has that the antagonist thwarts, taking the antagonist down a peg.

The best stories are the ones that have several levels of conflict: internal, external, character's own personal demons, time constraints, interpersonal between the protagonist and his or her allies, and priorities, for a few examples. The more conflicts that can come to a head at the climax of the story, the stronger the impact of that ending. Apparently that's called a Hollywood Formula, which I learned from the Writing Excuses podcast (outside link).

But I'm a pantster, and I'm assuming, if you read my blog, that you, too have pantster tendencies. Who has time to plot out all the various conflicts and make them come to a head when there's a draft to get down in words? I rarely start with the knowledge of what the antagonist wants, or how my protagonist is clashing with whoever my bad guy is.

No, I start far simpler than that. I figure out, as I flesh out my character in my pre-writing phase, what that character values. What's important to him/her? What does the character take for granted?

Then, I take it away.

I'll give you an example. In my trilogy, my character starts by rushing around preparing for college graduation. She has a list of what she has to do that day all mapped out in her head. She has people who are going to help her out once she's out on her own.

And then, I take it away. I shatter her conception that she understands all the dangers of a world outside academia. I destroy her most valued friendship. And I show her she's not as safe as she thinks she is.

The epic fantasy I've been mulling over starts with a character who's powerful and assured and tied very closely to her home base. Then, in steps something stronger than she is, who uproots her and sends her wandering into a world she doesn't understand. (I don't know a lot beyond that, but I do know where the story begins.)

So, if you're having trouble getting into the head of your antagonist, and your story is meandering along without a conflict, take something away from your protagonist. It needs to be something important, something that character will miss.

See if that doesn't help your word count.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld


Leviathan
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I've mentioned it before, but I'm wary of highly-recommended books. I tend to find them lacking. If everyone liked something, I find my expectations too high, and I latch onto things other readers were willing to overlook.

With Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, I am relieved to say, the streak is broken. The book lives up to the glowing recommendations. I found it an immensely entertaining, well-paced tale.

Leviathan is an alternate history story set in WWI. It's advertised as steampunk, though it's not set in the Victorian era like most steampunk novels. It does involve advanced technology and gene splicing to create creatures who can stand in for technology, so it shares a lot of elements. The story follows the fictional Aleksandar Ferdinand, son of the Archduke whose assassination sparked the real WWI, and Deryn Sharp, a girl posing as a boy so she can fly on an airship that's made up of a gene-spliced whale/jellyfish/amoeba/whatever.

Initially, I wondered why, if he could change so much of history, Westerfeld didn't just make it so that women could serve openly on an airship. But Dyren's hiding of her identity is mirrored in Alek's, as he is the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and being hunted down to make sure he never inherits it. It also allows for some intriguing gender reversals. Alek envies Dyren's adventurous spirit, her bravado, her ability to bounce back from major hurts. He even envies her foul-mouthed fluency, though all of the swears in the book are invented. What's interesting about the swearing is that it makes sense for the world these characters inhabit; they evolved from the world they live in, rather than simply serving as place-holders.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, the main conflict still ongoing as of the last page. Dyren is still serving on an airship that's limping its way to Constantinople (not Istanbul), she doesn't know what's in the package they're delivering, and Alek is still on the run from those who'd see him put out of the way to simplify European politics.

I don't know a lot about WWI, but the afterword on the audio edition does a lot to clarify and set the record straight on what's real and what's made up. I would hope there aren't any readers who'd be convinced WWI was fought with walking tanks and flying whales, but one never knows, I suppose.

While I'm talking about the audio edition, I will note that Alan Cumming does an excellent job of narrating this tale. His accent for Dr. Barlow sounds a bit schoolmarmish at times, but it certainly differentiates her from the rest of the cast without his affecting a falsetto. The rest of the accents and voices are unique enough to tell characters apart fairly well, and he injects energy into the words to enhance the excitement of the reading.

Overall, I enjoyed this book greatly. It was an easy, quick read, and evoked pulpy, high-adventure tales of that time period. I will be picking up the next two to listen to. I'm looking forward to them.



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Tenses

Image is a pun. Groan if you get it.
It's time for another grammar lesson. Because I say so. I'm done with my editing project, and I still have picky grammar things on my mind.

Tense is where, in time, a story takes place. Something can be past, present, or future tense. One doesn't run across a lot of fiction in future tense, but present tense is becoming more common, as writers often employ it to increase the sense of immediacy. It's the best way to create uncertainty about the main character's survival in a first-person narrative, for instance, because a person could be narrating as she goes along, then suddenly die.

The most common tense for stories is past tense. There are several forms of past tense (link goes to an outside blog), but most are the straightforward, simple, "This happened, then this, and while that happened, this happened."

I've read mixtures of tenses that have worked rather well. I've read a present-tense story with interjections of past-tense flashbacks. I've read past-tense narratives with sections showing character insight in present tense. I've read past-tense narratives that make it clear the character is looking back on something that happened decades ago, with insights into the action or motives interjected throughout. I've read past-tense narratives that are following the action closely, which created almost as much immediacy as the present-tense accounts.

Which tense you tell your story in is up to you, and it will depend on what story you're telling and how you want to tell it. I've played around with tenses in story drafts to see if it fixes issues with pacing, because I'm a pantster and making wholesale changes is nothing new.

The biggest pitfall with tenses is making sure you're consistent. If you're telling the story in past tense, don't suddenly jump into present. If you have a flashback within the story, make sure to separate out that flashback as having occurred at another point in time (usually by adding, "to have," properly conjugated, before each verb, which is called past perfect), so that the reader is back in time with you.

If you're new at this writing thing, very little will give you away faster than a tense shift in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph. If you're not new at writing, tense shifts will certainly make you look that way, or like your writing is generally sloppy and all over the place.

Lots of experienced writers can get away with jumping about in time throughout their narratives without losing their readers. As with all grammar rules, though, you earn your poetic license by first showing you can do it right.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Grammar Peeves: Dangling Modifiers

My post on Writing About Rape generated quite a few views, especially for a Thursday night post. This is not teaching me to avoid blogging when annoyed.

In my online perusal today, I came across The Purdue OWL, which has all kinds of information about how to properly write English. Those of you who come here for my grammar posts can find a wealth of information on that link, including exercises on grammar and usage.

One of the sections that caught my eye was on dangling modifiers. It's one of the pitfalls of passive voice, in that you can wind up with a disembodied force driving action in your story, leaving the reader confused.

A correct modifier is something like:
Stepping through the door, she dropped her keys in the bowl and said, "Hello?"
Incorrect:
Stepping through the door, the keys fell in the bowl with a clank as a voice called, "Hello?"  
The keys aren't stepping through the door, and the fact that a person is present is only implied. Granted, the reader will figure out that the keys aren't stepping anywhere, thanks to context, but why make a reader do that work in the first place? It's rude and off-putting. You want your reader to feel challenged wondering, "What happens next?", not, "What did she mean?"

There is an entire series of books I gave up on reading because of missed modifiers. Actions happened, then an inanimate object or disembodied force took up the rest of the sentence. Worst, people would apparently glare at themselves before speaking. ("Giving her a stern look, she said to him, 'I think it's perfectly rational.'" Bleah.)

The best way to recognize these in your own writing is to pause at commas. Do you have this kind of compound sentence, where one thing logically follows another? If so, ask yourself, what's the subject of the sentence? You can have a sentence with a noun in it that isn't the subject: see my first example. Read the sentence again to determine who has a verb attached, and if that person (or object) is who you meant to be acting in the sentence. If it's incorrect, fix it. That's usually as easy as breaking it up into two sentences, combining them into one statement without the comma, or moving the subject in to appear sooner.

I don't run into a lot of professionally-published books with dangling modifiers, thank goodness. When I do, though, I find it off-putting enough to make me question the writing ability of the author, and whether there's anything else wrong with the narrative.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Writing About Rape

I try to avoid anything controversial on here. I try to avoid saying anything more incendiary than, "This is my opinion." But today, I am beyond cranky, and well into ornery. So I'm going to wade into something I've danced around.

I don't like rape in stories. I don't like that it dwells on the woman's naked, heaving flesh. I don't like that it's a shortcut to character development, especially with female characters. I don't like how often it comes up. I don't like that it's shorthand for showing how evil the bad guy is.

But what I hate most about it is when a writer isn't setting out to write a rape scene. You say, "bodice ripper," I hear, "she gets raped and likes it." And it  freaks me out, how we're all okay with this. I recently skimmed through reviews for a book that left me shivering in disgust when the "hero" raped the heroine. I was looking for acknowledgment that it was creepy and gross. Out of hundreds of reviews, I found two that used the word, "rape," and one that danced around the concept without committing to the word. (I, myself, didn't describe it as such in my review, so I can't blame that third reviewer.)

I like the concept of enthusiastic consent. I like the idea that anything people do in bed is hotter if both people are all for it. I like the idea of people feeling safe, even if their fantasy is being pinned against a wall and taken.

When I read a scene where someone takes liberties not explicitly given in the text, it brings me crashing back to reality. It reminds me that this happens all the time, and it's given as a reason why "she was asking for it." And that's not sexy. It's nauseating.

I've read rape in narratives that I liked. I think Margaret Atwood, for instance, handles it exceptionally well. I've also read a hell of a lot of writers who are no Margaret Atwood. They use rape as titillation, they simplify its effect on the victim, they institute rape as a punishment, or a consequence for a relatively harmless decision, like drinking. In other words, they reinforce rape culture.

But I think it's even worse when writers didn't set out to write about rape, but they do. I don't care how much your heroine secretly wants it; if she says "No" or pushes him away and he does it, anyway, I'm not going to like him, and I might throw your book across the room. Or if she's too drunk or high or otherwise incapacitated to say yes or no.

I'm using the female pronoun throughout because it's most commonly happening to female characters (and women, out here in the real world), but it's just as gross if it happens to a male protagonist. I don't want to read about a guy punished with sodomy, I don't want to hear your otherwise-sympathetic characters laughing about prison rape, and I certainly don't want a woman winning over a guy by coercing him into bed with her.

If you think you can write about rape in a sensitive, enlightened way, stop. Do some research. Talk to some rape crisis counselors, as well as those who counsel survivors years after the fact. Then, think long and hard about whether you can capture the nuance of the horror they've been through, without traumatizing rape survivors who read your story, and without giving rapists reason to think it's normal.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Progress Post: Stalled

It's been a while since my last progress post (and why do I think there should be a priest listening to me narrate this post, and assigning me a word count?). Sadly, I have very little to report since my April 23rd post. I still haven't finished "Reincarnation." I won't have it finished by the next writing group meeting, as I said I would. I've been poking at it, but it's not done, nor is it close to done.

What I have accomplished is driving to Tennessee and back, arriving in the wee hours on each leg. (There is no good time of day to start a 16-hour drive if you're not stopping in the middle, by the way.) I was there for my little sister's graduation, where she introduced me to her professors as the grammar prescriptivist, and the reason why she thinks she can't write.

It's good to know one had an impact on a young life, isn't it?

Seriously, though, it's difficult to write when you're driving, and just as much so when you're exhausted from the drive. The exhaustion also lowered my defenses so that, despite my overloading on vitamin C, I caught some kind of Tennessee death plague. It flattened me for nearly a week after my return. I couldn't eat, and could barely move, for three of those days.

That brings us up to last Sunday. I'd been working on my paid editing work whenever I wasn't lying about moaning that I was dying, and so I got to step up my editing work and see all the things I missed in my delirium. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough that I'm never going to discount the importance of alertness when editing ever again.

I did get around to the edits on "Awaken," the first book in the trilogy. I pondered the ending at length, and finally decided the problem was all the rambling. So I lopped it off and left some more questions open for book 2. Not that they're pressing questions, or anything, which is why I don't feel so much as a smidgen of guilt.

I posted the resulting draft to the writing group, not for critique, but so they can crit book 2 without having book 1 spoiled. If they don't care, they don't need to read it. Mostly, I'm hoping to hear that I'm crazy if I don't send my nice, polished manuscript to a publisher and/or agent, but I have no idea what kind of reception it'll actually get.

Review: Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah


Winter Garden
Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



This is not my favorite of the Kristin Hannah books I've read. It reads like one of hers, and carries over a lot of the themes of her other books, but I felt like the deeper subject matter was made light of, instead of the shallowness of the rest of the plot being enriched by some heavier topics.

The book is about the Whitson sisters, whose mother never loved them. Their wonderful, perfect father tries to make up for the lack of a mother's love, but then he dies, and people's lives fall apart. It turns out Mom has been suffering from PTSD for the last 55 years, and has to be pestered into sharing her trauma so that her daughters can get over their issues. Those being, one of them can't figure out if she still loves her husband of 20-something years, and the other might not want to marry her awesome boyfriend.

If that summary read as deeply sarcastic to you, congratulations. I was extremely disappointed in the use of someone's history of near-starvation during WWII in then-Leningrad to help some WASPy women realize their mother loved them all along. It was too pat, too neat and predictable.

I had a hard time believing that the father was as wonderful as everyone believed. He was married to this woman he supposedly loved for 50+ years, and never once confronted her about the fact that she was acting out her trauma? There's keeping the peace, and then there's being delusional to the point of scarring your kids. Supposedly, he loved his daughters, but he let them think their mother just didn't care about them. The fact that he made his youngest daughter promise, on her deathbed, to extract the story of what happened, fails to make this better in my mind. He sidestepped the real work involved with loving someone, and let everyone around him suffer so he didn't have to upset his wife.

As for the trauma, itself, it turns out dear, distant Mom actually survived WWII in Leningrad, by the skin of her teeth, and has been carrying around that trauma and survivor's guilt for decades. That she shares her trauma with her girls (and therefore heals their midlife angst) is supposed to fix four decades of treating them like they didn't matter.

One major problem with the narrative was that Mom's flashback is called a "fairy tale," and it's described as being told in a storytelling voice. But the tone of the "fairy tale" is never anything like a fairy tale, even a Russian one. It's too detailed, too dialogue-centric, too formally crafted. It didn't sound like the sort of narrative a woman could repeat word-for-word with each retelling.

I never felt like the characters were real, their reactions something real human beings would have, except for Vera, who's been deeply traumatized. For that trauma to translate into healing one self-sabotaging woman's marriage and another's commitment issues made it shallow, though, and like it didn't matter. The takeaway was too superficial. It also managed to trivialize every other difficult mother-daughter relationship, ever, in suggesting that distant moms must have a good excuse and therefore the daughters' feelings of emotional abandonment don't matter.

I know Kristin Hannah can write touching stories about grief and love and healing, which is why this was such a disappointment. Hopefully she'll stick to lighter subjects.



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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reading Comprehension

I read a lot of book reviews. Mostly, I read reviews of books I've read, usually to see if other people agreed with me, or not, and why. I've come to the conclusion that my reading experience is vastly different from most other readers', and that I can't trust majority opinion to choose my future reading material, with a few notable exceptions.

Photo by Petr Kratochvil
What really trips me up, though, is when a reviewer complains, "It never really explained __________," and I scratch my head, flip through for a minute, and say, "But it says right here, on page 253 . . ."

Granted, there is a difference between showing and telling, and it irks me when the characters' actions contradict their characterization. A supposedly strong female character without agency, a character described as decisive who waffles throughout the text, and a supposedly sexy alpha male who makes me want to join a nunnery are perfect justification for a book's joining The Wallbangers Club.

That's not what I'm talking about, though. I'm talking about reviewers who are just plain wrong, and demonstrably so. They complain a character never sticks up for herself, when she does in chapters 1, 3, 8, 12, and 31. They harp on the existence of magic, when the book is clearly set in an alternative universe. They demand of a writer when so-and-so is going to get a girlfriend, when she went on four dates in the most recent installment.

I'm not going to name names, and I'm most certainly not using real-life examples, because I'm not falling into the trap of responding to a review. I may not be a published author, but it's a bad idea, regardless, even if the reviewer is wrong. I'll offer supportive comments about "reading comprehension fail" to authors I like, but that's the closest I'll get to a public response. My usual reaction is to stop, reread to make sure I read the review correctly, then shake my head and move on.

Mostly, I store up these experiences for the possibility I run across reviews of my own work and feel the urge to respond. They're fodder for the eventual reminder I'll need, that not everyone is as sharp-eyed a reader as the wonderful people in my writing group. They're proof that the mythical reader I hold in my mind is more observant than the reader that exists in reality.

Nothing will make me dumb down what I'm writing. I want to appeal to the sharp-eyed, to have a following with high reading comprehension, to be appreciated by those who appreciate subtlety. But, I do still want to be understood.

And so, when I go through this mental exercise, running across a review that makes me stop and shake my head, I think about my own clarity. I needn't pound readers over the head with my points, but are they articulated somewhere within the text? Do I reinforce my characterizations with my characters' actions? Is my theme consistent, and clear from one chapter to the next?

I recognize that there's nothing I can do about a person's poor reading comprehension. Sometimes, people will misread things. But, so long as I know I've put my best writing out there, my work will defend itself just fine.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Grammar: Hypen Use

Because I'm back to editing, as I mentioned last night, I'm noticing more grammar rules I take for granted. I learned and absorbed them so long ago that, in order to outline what I know, I had to look it up all over again.

Hyphens have become second nature to me, to the point where I'll type out a multi-adjective sentence without thinking twice about whether to hyphenate, or where. I know you use a hyphen when there's more than one adjective, but I had no idea how to differentiate a comma and a hyphen, except just to do it.

So, after some perusing, here's how you tell the difference: if the adjectives are supposed to be joined into a single modifier, hyphenate. For instance, if a kid is three years old, and you want to differentiate him from his older sibling, you'll write "the three-year-old boy." The kid isn't year or old, and calling him "the three boy" would confuse your readers. Because the modifiers only make sense together, you hyphenate them.

There is an exception to the above, and that's when the first word ends in -ly. The newly painted wall doesn't get a hyphen, because the reader will be looking for the adjective "newly" modifies. However, the just-installed door in the wall does get a hyphen, because the door isn't just.

For another example, let's say your protagonist went on a number of dates, and uses one major feature to describe each to her friend over drinks. The well-dressed one may well have made the best initial impression, and less if he were merely "well" or "dressed," both of which are a minimum requirement for dates. The tall and skinny one needs no hyphen, because both of these features can exist on their own. The Shakespeare-quoting man is indeed quoting, but what? And he's certainly not Shakespeare, unless that's the story you're writing. But would you really want to give it away so soon?

Basically, if you can remove either adjective, and it would still make sense, the most you'll need to do is a comma. If it doesn't make sense with any of the words removed, hyphenate.

If you're using a hyphen to separate, though, you're doing it wrong. The mark of punctuation you want to show you're about to introduce a concept is a colon ( : ). If you want to separate out part of the sentence in an aside, use an em-dash ( — ), which most word programs will automatically format from two hyphens put together ( -- ). If you're using Windows, you can also hold down the Alt key and type 0151 on your number pad. When you lift your finger from the Alt key, an em-dash will appear.

I've put spaces before and after the colon and em-dash, above, to make their appearance clearer. But when you use an em-dash, you don't put a space before or after it. As an example:
One might assume—correctly so—that I use em-dashes fairly often, if I have Alt+0151 memorized.
I hope that cleared up a few things, and that I've managed to make hyphens not boring and easier to understand.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Editing Tools: Read Backwards

I recently heard a new piece of advice for editing your writing from purely a grammar, sentence structure, and clarity perspective. I needed to try it out before I went ahead and passed it along, though.

Lucky for me, more detail editing work has come my way. I won't reveal anything about it, except that the fact that I did the first set of edits for the first publisher led to this job in a roundabout way. This is a much smaller job, and should go much faster, which is why I had room to try this new method.

Simply put, on this run-through, I started at the end of the manuscript, and am working my way forward. I'm trying to go sentence by sentence, but this writer's sentences are a different length than what I'm accustomed to. So, if I can manage paragraph by paragraph, that's what I'm doing.

What this technique does is it removes the context. I can't check for continuity, using this method, but that's not the level of edits I was hired to perform, anyway. I'm contracted to look for grammar and sentence structure issues, and that's precisely what reading backwards is revealing.

It also slows me down, and anything that halts the eye is good. When you read straight through a thing, whether you're a fast reader or not, you'll want to keep going. Therefore, your mind will fill in gaps, patch over bad syntax, and generally ignore that the words aren't perfect, in favor of the big picture. That's one of the advantages of reading aloud, too.

I can definitely say that I've spotted some errors I'd jumped over before, when I was reading chronologically, so this small tip has been a great help. I can't say for sure I wouldn't have picked them up on my third read-through, but I didn't pick them up on my first or second pass.

And so, having tried it, and found it useful, I'm passing this tip along. For sentence-level edits, read your piece starting from the last sentence, and going back to the start. You'll find things you wouldn't have, reading chronologically.

This method may also highlight repetitive conversations or if you've mentioned something more than once, but I wouldn't count on it for finding redundancy. Instead, I'll be using it on my own writing when I need to polish up the grammar to a high shine.

Because, yes, even I make errors in my writing. Shocking, I know.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review: Write More Good: An Absolutely Phony Guide by The Bureau Chiefs


Write More Good: An Absolutely Phony Guide
Write More Good: An Absolutely Phony Guide by The Bureau Chiefs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I got this book as a birthday present this year. I don't think I would've bought it for myself, even if I do find the FakeAPStylebook twitter feed humorous. It was a good choice for a gift, though; I enjoyed it.

The book is far more than a compilation of funny tweets, though I did recognize several tweets within the text. They fleshed it out into sections by subject. The first is about news in general. The next few sections are about politics, entertainment, sex, religion, sport, technology, science, pseudoscience, the military, citing and attributing, punctuation and grammar, and media law. The book wraps up with a section on newspaper reporting through the ages.

It's all delivered in a journalistic style guide sort of tone, and you can't believe a word of it. The humor in this book relies heavily on irony, with very few laugh-out-loud lines. If you like your humor dry, you may want to consider picking this one up.

However, the book is also written with the assumption those reading it have some background in journalism. There are a lot of in-jokes, some of which sailed over my head, because I'm not a journalist. I still found the book overall entertaining and funny, but I got the feeling the book wasn't trying to appeal to non-journalists.

If you follow @FakeAPStylebook on Twitter, and you find their tweets entertaining, I would recommend you pick up this book. Also, if you write for anything that reports on the news in any kind of formal way, you'll probably find the irreverent advice humorous.



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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Invoking the Five Senses

One of the best ways to draw a reader into a world and make it feel more real is by invoking sensory information. Most writers, if you tell them to describe something, will involve one sense, or sometimes two. I'm sure you already know what the five senses are, but here's how they apply to you and descriptions:

  • Sight - What something looks like, including color, opacity, whether it reflects or absorbs light, and what it physically resembles. This is the most common descriptor, because ours is a visual species.
  • Sound - What it sounds like. Sounds can be loud or soft, soothing or harsh, distinct or hard to make out. Very few environments are perfectly silent. Right this moment, I can hear the cat snoring, and my husband's foot sliding over the bottom of the desk every time he fidgets, in addition to the tap-tapping of my keyboard.
  • Touch - What it feels like. Textures, including whether something is slimy or sticky, how much give it has, how soft or rough it feels against the skin, all invoke touch. Romance novels generally make great use of the sense of touch, both in the texture of the person being touched, and what the other person's hands feel like. Heat and cold also involve the sense of touch.
  • Taste - What the taste buds detect. Also shows up in romance novels, but more commonly used in scenes where characters experience a new food for the first time, or they're consuming a favorite. Foodies will tell you that touch also plays a role, in that "mouthfeel," or the texture of the food on the tongue, plays a role in how it tastes.
  • Scent - What the nose detects. Smell is the sense most closely tied to memory in the brain, and I feel it's underused in modern fiction to spark flashbacks or brief interludes of memory. Smell enhances taste, which is why wine tasters do that thing with their mouths. It's to push wine-scented air up through their noses, so they can involve more senses in the tasting. But smell can also give environmental clues. The choking smell of exhaust will tell you one thing about an environment, while the scent of damp moss will put you in an entirely different place.
While I think it's excessive to use all five of these senses every time you describe something, the use of senses not usually used to describe an event or object is the best way to sidestep cliché and describe it in a fresh way. The reader feels far more immersed in your world if you can surround them with all five senses throughout the narrative.

Also, as you can imagine, the senses are closely tied to one another. If you start describing how savory a meal smells on its way to the table, you're cheating your reader if you don't then describe how tender the food, how multilayered the tastes, how well the perfect wine pairing washes it down.

And now I've made myself hungry.

If you're not sure how to go about this, try filling out some of your sparser scenes with a description of what your characters see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. You can cut the excess later, but you might stumble across some sensory details you really like, in the meantime.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pet Peeves: Too Stupid To Live

I'm still sick, and so the crankiness continues.

I could've sworn I'd already done a post on this. I must've included it in enough book reviews that I felt like I'd blogged about it already. This phenomenon is why the last book I threw against a wall got that particular treatment.

Too stupid to live is so prevalent it actually has its own acronym, at least in writing circles. I've seen TSTL tossed out as blithely as tl;dr, and accepted just as readily. If one of my friends tags a book as TSTL-containing, I'll steer far clear of it.


There is a difference between a character who's too stupid to live, or one with a legitimate mental illness or disability. The TSTL has no reason to be stupid, except that it drives the plot. It's an insult to people with disabilities to associate them with such willful stupidity. The TSTL will need constant rescue, because he or she doesn't have the sense God gave a squirrel. I've yelled at TSTLs as they've gone to mysterious, violent strangers somewhere they'll be alone, blundered into traffic, gone back into the haunted house for no discernible reason (or ignored the blood dripping from walls as the voice intones, "GET OUT"), failed to convey a key piece of information given plenty of opportunity to do so, drank copiously before getting behind the wheel with a sober passenger, and tagged along on an investigation for the fun of it. (As you can imagine, reading is an expressive activity for me.)

What defines the TSTL is that the plot wouldn't work without this character's total lack of common sense. If she (and let's be honest, most TSTLs are female) thought for two seconds about how reckless an action she was making, she'd do something with a higher survival rate, and there would be no conflict.

That's not to say I expect all characters inhabiting a novel to be intelligent and observant and able to kick your butt at chess. I like reading flawed characters. It's just that the TSTL stretches my disbelief too far. If I can't imagine the character surviving to adulthood outside a padded, reinforced bubble, I'm not apt to believe their existence, even with whatever world you've set up around them.

You can certainly have characters with blind spots, and whose weaknesses are exploited within the narrative. That's how stories are supposed to work. But, if the character flaw can be boiled down to, "This character would be dead several times over if not saved from the character's own bad choices," please, rethink your characterization.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pet Peeves: Too Many Perspectives

It's been a whole two and a half weeks since I last complained. Today feels like a complaining kind of day. It's raining and cold, and I'm sick, and I have to go back to work tomorrow. Time off always passes too quickly.

I've been holding off on griping about the excessive perspective problem, because I don't have an easy answer of how many perspectives are appropriate for a narrative. Some stories need five or six characters chiming in to show what happened. Others need only one perspective character, and can be told in the first-person point of view, which comes with its own issues.

For the sake of this post, I'm assuming the story is told in a third-person point of view.

A scene should be from the perspective of the character who has the most to lose in that scene. Barring that, the one upon whose shoulders the outcome lies, the one who makes a decision that turns the plot, or the one who sees the most of what's going on, can all serve as a good narrator.

However, when you hop from one character to the next, you're tearing the reader away from a previously established relationship to another. You're creating more work for yourself, because you need to create that emotional connection, a reason to keep reading, within each perspective. You have to get the reader invested in each perspective character. If you don't, you run the risk of the reader skipping past that section, or putting the book down entirely and not picking it back up. You can have the world's most compelling story, but, if the reader isn't emotionally invested, it's gone to waste.

The worst symptom of there being too many perspective characters is head-hopping. That's when, in the middle of a scene, you shift from one perspective to another, often without anything to mark the transition. It's jarring, and looks sloppy, like you weren't paying attention to who was telling the story.

I've read a lot of books with the above problems, and I've marked at least one star, sometimes more, off for it. It left me feeling disconnected from the narrative, and it felt like the author hadn't gotten his or her thoughts in order in the final draft.

When you're writing your story, initially, try to tell it in as few perspectives as you can. In later drafts, you can expand the perspectives and have each of those characters matter to the reader. But, when you're just getting the story down, it's a lot of work to add on top of plotting, characterization, theme, setting, and whatever else you're trying to include in your first draft. As you go through each reread, ask yourself if each perspective character adds enough to the narrative to risk disconnecting the reader from the story. If the answer is no, find another way to convey the information.

I can post about the various perspectives and how to decide which to use at a later date. For now, though, I'll be content if one future author takes it to heart that there's such a thing as too many perspectives.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Review: A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire


A Local Habitation
A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I read the paper version of this book when it first came out. My review is here. I was on a long car trip, and so I listened to the audio version, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal. It's not that different an experience; Ms. Kowal's narration doesn't detract from the story, and she's pleasant to listen to for hours on end. She's not how I heard Toby's voice, but she's not jarringly different, either, and I kept forgetting that I'd first heard her voice on the Writing Excuses podcast.

What struck me the most about this reading was the pacing. I know I remarked on it in my other review, but it's even more noticeable when I can't skim ahead to make sure everything works out okay. My mother, who listened to the book with me, actually yelled at the stereo when there was a brief pause for switching discs, right in the middle of the summoning scene.

As in Rosemary and Rue, there are a lot of clues to the deeper story, and a lot of hints to the revelations to come. Information is gleaned from the night haunts, and there are some tantalizing hints that it goes even deeper than that. Seanan McGuire was setting up a lot of later revelations from the very start of the series, and it's fun to go back and find those breadcrumbs. I'm sure there are even more hints of what's to come, but I'm enjoying discovering things as they're revealed.

I plan on rereading all of the October Daye books before Ashes of Honor comes out in September. These books lend themselves to rereading quite well.



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Setting

I spent part of my week last week driving through places I'd never been to before. While I didn't catch much more than a glimpse, I did get a sense of the landscape, weather, and geography. It's enough for the start of some research on setting, at least.

While one can easily write a story set in a place one has never been, it requires a lot more research. Visiting a place can tell you a lot about the traffic, weather, topography, and the people who populate it than just reading the travel guide. At the very least, someone who lived in the place you want to use as a setting should look over the story to make sure you haven't written in any physical impossibilities, or anything that would stick out to a reader from that area.

When one chooses a setting, that setting should inform the story. Some aspect of that setting should play a part in the story. The first thing you should try to uncover as you start your research on setting is what sets the place apart from similar places. Then, figure out the things "everyone knows." For instance, if I were to set a story where I grew up on Cape Cod, the story would acknowledge that the population doubles every summer, that the economy relies heavily on tourism, and that locals both appreciate and resent the traffic-clogging effects from June through August every year. I'd have to acknowledge the tone most popular fiction ascribes to the Cape, because most people didn't grow up on Cape Cod, so all they know is what they see when they visit, or read books about it. I wouldn't want my Cape Cod to be such a different entity from all the other fictional versions. I'd still want it recognizable, but I'd have to use more details to convince my readers that the one I'm working with is the real deal.

Details about setting shouldn't necessarily be a big part of the narrative. I've read books where setting is lightly painted in, and others where it's slathered on. How much of the setting is shared is totally up to you and the kind of story you're telling.

But, if you do choose to use a particular setting, you should have a reason why. You should use some aspect of that place in the story, and use any pertinent details, without infodumping or interrupting the narrative.

As an exercise in setting, try writing a short story in two different places you've lived or visited. Use the same characters and premise in both stories, but have the setting play a part in how the story plays out. It may not affect the narrative much, in the end, but it should affect how things play out, how your characters speak, and the description surrounding the characters. Something as simple as whether a place has public transportation will affect how well two characters know one another; I know I'd be more familiar with someone I carpooled with than the guy who sits across from me on the subway every day.

If you give it a try, let me know how it goes in the comments.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Review: Naked in Death by J.D. Robb


Naked in Death
Naked in Death by J.D. Robb

My rating: 2 of 5 stars



Once again, I find myself in the minority about a piece of popular fiction. At least now I have more keywords in my "I'm not going to read that" stable. It's always good to know that, if someone compares a book to someone popular I dislike, I won't like that book, either.

I picked this one up because it was slated to be darker than Nora Roberts' usual books. I don't like fluffy romance, and the tropes used in her usual books didn't appeal to me. I thought some intrigue might make up for the tropes and keep me interested enough to read despite that.

I was wrong.

In this book, Eve Dallas (not her real name) is covering the high-profile murder case of a prostitute who happens to be the granddaughter of a well-known politician. The year is 2058, though it's a vision of the future set from 1995, so some of the predictions are dated.

I can overlook the technology being likely obsolete, and the apparent nonexistence of an internet. What I can't overlook, though, is the backwards attitudes. I expect the bad guy to have a regressive view about women, but the main love interest, Roarke, made my skin crawl. He has no respect for Eve's boundaries, and he literally has sex with her when she's in the middle of panicking about being held down. He never apologizes for it when he realizes what a violation it is for her, and she doesn't expect him to. Instead, we're treated to a laughing rendition to her one female friend about the encounter as, well, she must've enjoyed herself, because they had a lot of sex.

The initial encounter that got her in her bed was consensual. Every other encounter on that night is told with her protesting, trying to get away, actually attacking him to get him off her. She never consents to more than that one encounter.

Yuck.

I would feel a lot better about the above if she ever reflects on that, but she doesn't. Instead, she keeps going back to him.

The murder mystery plot was thin, and the romance dominated the focus of the novel. Add in some head-hopping that made the scenes hard to follow (perspectives were shifted jarringly, with no warning), underdeveloped side characters, and a number of pointless scenes, and I found myself hurrying through this just to be able to return it to the library.

The series may well improve in future volumes. I won't know. I have no love for a bodice ripper thinly veiled as a futuristic dystopian mystery. Let those who like that sort of thing have it; I want nothing to do with it, and wish to warn you away if this isn't your thing.



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Friday, May 4, 2012

Review: Rosemary and Rue (October Daye #1) by Seanan McGuire


Rosemary and Rue
Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I read a paper copy of this book when it first came out. I just reread it on audio, during a very long car trip. It was a different experience, and not just because I was listening to Mary Robinette Kowal's narration. This book contains breadcrumbs of clues to later revelations. Also, it was a lot of fun to meet characters who later become a lot more important to Toby.

The first time I read Rosemary and Rue was at a convention. I got through most of it while standing in line for an autograph, with music blaring all around, and people stepping over me. There were a lot of remarks to the effect of, "Must be a good book!" I just nodded, let them see the cover, and kept reading.

The premise of Rosemary and Rue is that October Daye (Toby, to her friends) is a half-fae changeling, who has every reason in the world to avoid her fae heritage. But then a friend is murdered, drawing her back in through a curse that'll kill her if she doesn't find her murderer.

The book is still a good read, even without the sense of urgency to know what happens next. The bad guy is telegraphed fairly early, which didn't bother me the first time I read it, and bothered me even less now.

The most bothersome part of the entire narrative was how often Toby drifts off to sleep, in immensely comforting terms. When it's 4 AM, you're somewhere in Ohio, and your parents are snoring in stereo, it's difficult to listen to how soothing it is to drift off to sleep.

Rereading this book (so to speak) made me see a lot of the reasons why I would declare Seanan McGuire my favorite author with her latest book. This debut shows so many of her strengths, so many of the things I love about her writing. It's still a debut novel, but one set in an intriguing world with a fascinating protagonist.



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