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Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones


The Ogre Downstairs
The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Just when I thought I knew exactly what to expect from Diana Wynne Jones, I pick up The Ogre Downstairs, and realize that I can't predict anything about her books.

That's a good thing, even if I'm not the intended audience.

The Ogre Downstairs is written for a middle grade audience, for kids 8 and up. I rarely felt self-conscious reading it, though, because Diana Wynne Jones never wrote down to her audience. She doesn't dumb down the plots or simplify the writing; she simply has realistic people, often children, making decisions and affecting events.

In this book, there are three children: Casper, Johnny, and Gwinny (short for Guinevere). Their mother, Sally, has just married Jack, who they call the Ogre, because he's mean and short-tempered and hates noise. The Ogre has two children, Douglas and Malcolm, who have been away at boarding school most of their lives. The Ogre buys Johnny and Malcolm chemistry sets, which have all the usual ingredients appropriate for kids old enough to experiment on their own, but not old enough to know better than to taste their results. But there's an extra layer of ingredients, which have some magical effects, as they find out when spilling one mixture on Gwinny results in her floating to the ceiling.

From there, I expected them to find the ingredient that would rid them of the Ogre for good, but the book took an unexpected turn in using the chemistry sets for the kids to start finding common ground. Casper learns to sympathize with the snobby-seeming Malcolm when they accidentally switch places, and they all have to work together to keep from getting caught out in their experiments gone awry. Then even the Ogre turns out to have some sympathy, and learns to soften his approach to keep the peace.

It was a fuzzier grey area than I was expecting from a book about a magical chemistry set, and the lessons about giving people a chance and seeing through their eyes are ones I wish more children would be exposed to early on. The book isn't resolved by getting rid of the Ogre; it's by seeing him as a human being who can learn to do better.

As I said above, I am not the target audience for this book. I did enjoy it, though, and I was pleased at the notion of some kids reading it and absorbing the message. I plan to pass this along to my nephews, when they're old enough to appreciate it.



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Review: Emma by Jane Austen


Emma
Emma by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I was lucky to approach Jane Austen's works the way I did. Had I been forced to read her books for classes, and to pick them apart, I'd likely hate them. But, I've exclusively read Austen's books for pleasure, and that they have been.

Emma isn't my favorite Austen novel, but it is entertaining, in its way. It follows six or so months in the life of Emma Woodhouse, the youngest daughter of a wealthy hypochondriac. She's considered the "highest" person in Highbury, by virtue of birth and the fact that she's fairly social. But the book takes great pains to show that good breeding and good education don't make for a better person. Emma teases and embarrasses people, and manipulates someone she considers a close friend. Because of the standing in the community, people don't call her on her bad behavior, all of which is well within the codes of behavior for her class, which is why the consequences of her actions in this book come as such a shock to her.

If you've watched the movie Clueless, you're already familiar with the plot of Emma. Characters were combined or left out, and several plots were also changed, but the core of the story is there. Clueless could be argued to be something of an improvement, even, because the minutiae are left out. Emma goes on at length about who is invited to what social event, what people talk about there, where it's being held, how invitations are conveyed, who should be grateful to be invited, blah blah blah. For anyone who wants to know more of Regency-era English countryside living, there's quite a lot of detail to be found. But if you're waiting for the story to come along, I'm afraid all that social minutiae is the story.

At one point, a character's dialogue is spelled out for paragraphs and paragraphs, just to show the reader how tedious she sounds. I listened to this on audio, which really gets that across even more strongly. Had I been able to skim, I wouldn't have agreed so readily with Emma's assessment of that character.

The most illuminating character is that of Mrs. Elton, who doesn't show up until about halfway through the book. She abbreviates people's names, calls others by their first names, and assumes people are throwing parties in her honor when they aren't. Emma finds her a classless boor. While I don't know enough about Regency-era manners to point out all of her missteps, the ones Emma notices and points out are more than enough to tell me all about the unspoken rules. It was also interesting that "scheme" contains no negative connotation, and that "compliment" does. It carries an implication of an empty remark, said only for something to say.

Other than that, how little language has changed since Emma's publication surprised me. A lot of the dialogue sounded like something I might expect a well-spoken person in a movie to say, and the use of "pretty" as an adjective meaning, "very, but not strongly" was interesting.

The audio edition I listened to of this book had a male narrator. He sounded like he had a frog in his throat for a lot of the guy characters, and affected a falsetto for older women, which was annoying. But he did have a nice range of English accents that separated the characters nicely, and even managed to lend some of the characterization in his accents. I'd be interested to hear this narrated by a woman, though.

Overall, Emma is typical Austen. If you like her books, you'll like this one. If you don't, you probably won't. Austen did, reportedly, write that she had a heroine only she would like in Emma, so I felt quite comfortable in my waiting for her to realize what a jerk she was. That she does realize it, and works to become a better person, made me appreciate this book quite a lot.



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Giveaway winners

Today is the day the giveaway ends. Thanks to all who entered.

Without further ado, here are the winners, selected by random number generation:

Ruth Hill (Lambrusco)
BookAttict (A Madness of Angels)
ChaosMandy (A Madness of Angels)


I will be contacting the winners shortly through email.

Feel free to stick around if you entered the contest. I post book reviews as I finish reading books, but mostly, I focus on writing, as one who doesn't plan ahead or outline.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Recap for June 2012

I broke 10,000 page views this month. For a blog that's approaching its first anniversary in mid-July, I'm pretty pleased.

Without further ado, here's your recap for this month:

Book Reviews
Blackout by Mira Grant (5/5 stars; dystopian zombie conspiracy thriller; book 3 in the Newsflesh trilogy)—The final book in the Newsflesh series wraps up the conflict quite satisfyingly, with a few surprises on the way. I highly recommend you finish this series if you liked Feed. That I recognized one of the characters in her awesome real-life counterpart didn't hurt my rating one bit.

Fangland by John Marks (3/5 stars; horror; audio)—A modern update of Dracula that sets most of the action in the NY offices of a fictional Dateline equivalent. If you liked Dracula (the original book by Bram Stoker, not merely the concept), you're likely to enjoy this, but, if you didn't, you're likely to feel bogged down by the shallow narrative.

Variant by Robison Wells (3/5 stars; YA; audio)—An orphaned boy goes to a private school where there are no teachers, and the students are locked in. Probably more enjoyable if you're still in school.

Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore (4/5 stars; humorous historical fiction)—Christopher Moore breaks form to write about Paris and post-Impressionists and the color blue. He's still Christopher Moore, so we wind up with a tale that's funny and irreverent and quite entertaining.

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher (3/5 stars; urban fantasy mystery with fairies; book 4 of The Dresden Files; audio)—I'm listening to these because I like James Marsters telling me a story. I find the content lacking. And sexist. Bleah.

Spellbent by Lucy A. Snyder (4/5 stars; urban fantasy; book 1 of Jessie Shimmer series)—Young woman learning magic has to retrieve her boyfriend from a hell dimension, with a lot of opposition from a powerful and well-connected magic user. Oddly paced, but enjoyable and often funny.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (5/5 stars; gothic mystery; read years ago and reviewed from memory)—Lovely and textured book about a young man drawn into a world of intrigue and mystery when he rescues a book from Barcelona's Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Highly recommended for anyone who loves books (which should be most of you).

Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb (5/5 stars; geeky mystery; reread)—Mystery set during a small science fiction convention. Author Appin Dungannon is insufferable, but who would want him dead? Often hilarious, though some science fiction fans may take offense at some of the characterizations.

Most Popular Posts in June
My post on hyphen use continues to garner a shocking amount of traffic. Makes me wonder what other elements of grammar people really need explained.

My giveaway, as part of the Pay It Forward giveaway hop, is still going on until June 30. Luckily, many people have checked out the post, and entered for a free book. I'm looking forward to picking the winners.

In my post on insurmountable obstacles, I talked specifically about how my depression affects my ability to write. Other writers may have other things they absolutely can't get around, and that's okay. Just make sure writing is still a priority, when you can make the time.

Writing female characters is a challenge for some writers, so I hope some of them take my advice to heart. I'm tired of reading poorly-written women.

I posted about semicolons, my favorite mark of punctuation. Not so exciting, but then, neither are hyphens.

My May recap scored pretty well for June, which is why I'm going to keep doing recap posts.

I needed something to brighten my blog, so I posted about why I like the Flavia de Luce mysteries (of which the first is available through my giveaway).

I'd written a lot about what to do about weaknesses, but one mustn't neglect one's strengths. So I posted some tips.

I posted just the other day about how to tell if you have enough characters, and what to do with them if you feel they're going to waste.

In a tie for tenth place for the month, we have my post on writing dialect, and another on how different writers are at different levels in their writing skill.

Next month, I anticipate a post about the evils of filling space and passing time in your manuscript, and a lot of other topics I come up with at the last minute. Feel free to drop me suggestions in the comments. I'll also consider suggestions of books to review, but bear in mind that I only review books I wanted to read in the first place.

I also adopted a kitten this month. His name is Tybalt.
Yes, he's named after a character in a book.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How Many Characters?

If you haven't already, make sure you swing by my giveaway post and comment to enter to win one of the books listed. If you don't know which one you want, I've helpfully linked to reviews. The giveaway ends on June 30.

many faces in a crowd
I'm going to post tonight about something I struggle with, and that's how many characters to include in a book. There's no one right number, but I've read some books that have an inundation of fictional people, and others that have too few, where another character or two could've increased the whodunnit mystery, brought out another facet of the protagonist, or saved a character from behaving inconsistently.

One of the things I tinker with most from one draft to the next of my trilogy is how many characters to include. I don't want to have characters in there who serve no function, but I also don't want to pare it down so much that mysteries are given away by process of elimination. Then there's the character whose first appearance has been bumped back so often that her original appearance in book one has moved to book three.

Just because a character appears, it doesn't mean that character should get his or her own perspective. But characters do need to serve some purpose, or they're just set dressing. It needn't be an essential function, though I recommend that, if your characters are important enough to appear in your story, they're also important enough to have their own motivations, choices, and lives outside the protagonist.

Making well-rounded characters who can carry the story isn't my problem. At least, if it is, my writing group hasn't mentioned it. My problem is that I often don't know what to do with people, or I lose track of them.

Fortunately, I do have a couple of backup plans for things to do with characters who I don't want to toss into the climax of the story. First, I might use them to highlight a feature I want to show about my main character. For instance, I had trouble figuring out what purpose my protagonist's friend-and-roommate served. Then I made her more trusting and open to contrast against my protagonist's closed-off, mistrusting nature, which made it a lot more obvious without telling the reader all about it.

Second, I can use my useless side characters to point something out instead of wallowing in introspection and navel-gazing. Listening to characters talk to themselves is boring, but, as dialogue, it's more interesting. Revelations that might take pages and pages of thought process for one character may be a one-off remark for another. One of the major problems with pacing in the first book in my trilogy was solved by adding a second perspective. Then I didn't have to wait for that character to get around to telling my protagonist what was going on; he shared it with the reader in his own sections, and the story moved briskly along.

If your side characters are warping or taking over the story, you may want to consider tabling that side plot for another book. But each character should serve a purpose, just as every scene, every interaction, every description, also serves it.

You can always add or subtract characters as you need to. I recommend that you play around with this, until you've found the right balance and hit upon just the right number. I can't tell you what that exact number will be, though. That would make it easy, and since when has writing been easy?

Generally speaking, though, three or fewer characters are good for short stories, but novels need more.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Plotting by the Seat of Your Pants

If you haven't entered my giveaway, make sure you swing by that post to leave a comment.

And now, onto your regularly-scheduled (late) post. Don't look at me like that. My internet was out yesterday.

The biggest reason I'm a pantster is because my stories intimidate me. As Ira Glass has written, there's a gap between what's in your head and what's on the page. It's that gap that paralyzes me. I think of all my previous failures, and I fear I'm going to let this story down, too.

Picture found here
In order to face the task of writing a whole book, I have to break it down. And I have to do it in a way that lets me take it a little bit at a time. I start with a concept, usually a character, and I have a vague notion of where I want to go from there. But, if I think too far ahead of myself, I get overwhelmed, and there goes my motivation.

I do think about the story, but a little bit at a time. I'm always thinking about the next cool scene I want to get to, not the ending, at least until I'm a few scenes from the ending. It helps keep me motivated, to know that the cool scene I want to write or the neat dialogue line I thought up will leave my head if I don't write it soon.

Sometimes, when I can't sleep or I'm bored, I'll play "what if?" with my story. I've come up with some of my most interesting plot twists on a long car trip, or while walking somewhere. If I come up with something good when I'm trying to sleep, though, that can backfire. Good idea or not, if I fall asleep without jotting it down, I'll forget, and then I'll be mad at myself.

That all makes it sound like my stories are sheer chaos, and they're not. My initial drafts are messy and I wind up cutting at least a third of the dialogue, but I am starting out with the core of a good story. That's what editing is for. And if you tell me you've met a writer who doesn't require editing, I'll call you a liar.

Instead of mapping out the whole story, I start writing, and I begin where the main character wants to begin. Sometimes that means I need to cut the first couple of chapters, but I'd rather write badly than not at all.

As much as I give myself permission to write badly just to get it out, I can't dwell on all of my mistakes as I'm writing. The inner editor has a purpose, but it needs to shut up long enough for the first draft to get out on the page. In order to shut mine up, I have to take the story as it comes, and know I'll edit later. Thinking about the whole great mess just frustrates me, saps my motivation, and makes me not want to write anymore.

I recognize that's not a problem for many writers, or that they're able to overcome it while still outlining their books. But, this is what works for me. If it works for you, great. Otherwise, you may consider some alternatives.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Giveaway: The Favorites You've Never Heard Of

This giveaway ended on June 30, 2012. Thank you to all who participated. I am locking the comments and hiding entries.


As part of the Pay It Forward giveaway hop, I'll be giving away three of my favorite books you've never heard of. Which three? That will depend on you. Below I'm going to list six of my favorites you probably haven't stumbled across, along with a brief summary of why I like them and a link to my reviews. In the comments, post which book you'd like if my random number generator picks you, as well as a method for contacting you on June 30, when the giveaway ends.

Any winners who don't claim their prizes by July 5 will forfeit their books, and I'll draw another winner.

Make sure to visit the other blogs in the giveaway hop for other chances to win.

And now, the list:

Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb—a murder mystery set at a science fiction convention. Hilariously funny with some social commentary about geekdom and misbehaving authors. (Also available on Kindle.)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce #1) by Alan Bradley—also a murder mystery, this one set in post-WWII England. Flavia is precocious and wonderfully evil. (Also available in ebook.)

Alphabet Weekends by Elizabeth Noble—chick lit about finding love when you're not looking. Natalie and Tom started their random project of working their way through the alphabet one weekend at a time to ease their heartache, and of course it becomes so much more. Delightful. (Also available in ebook.)

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin—urban fantasy where the setting is practically another character, with an intriguing magic system. It's a long book, which only looks intimidating until you're 50 pages to the end and lamenting it'll be over soon. (Also available in ebook.)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon—gothic novel set in Barcelona, Spain, with some of the most intriguing settings I've ever read. This book is textured and beautifully written, and somewhat overlooked despite its international bestseller status. (Also available in ebook.)

Lambrusco by Ellen Cooney—historical fiction set in Italy during WWII. A retired opera singer is helping the rebels overthrow the fascist government when her son becomes a fugitive. Told in an operatic style that moves the pace along nicely. (Also available in ebook.)

Post which of the above books you most want to read in a comment, as well as how to contact you when the giveaway is over. I can contact you through email, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, or Livejournal.

I'll be having your book shipped to you from your local independent bookstore through Indiebound. If you would prefer an ebook and it's available in ebook format, let me know when I contact you.

EDIT: The giveaway has ended, and the winners are posted. If you won, I've sent you an email by the time this edit went through. Thank you to all who entered.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb


Bimbos of the Death Sun
Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



This was a reread, since I originally read it nearly a decade ago. It's a fun book, so it was hardly a chore to read a second time through.

Bimbos of the Death Sun is a murder mystery set at a science fiction convention. Dr. James O. Mega is attending a local convention to generate publicity for the book he's too embarrassed to admit he wrote under a pen name, thanks to its ridiculous title and terrible cover art. Also in attendance is the famously cranky Appin Dungannon, author of 20-something books about the Celtic hero Tratyn Runewind. Dungannon is offed near the halfway point of the book, leaving the second half devoted to solving the mystery of who hated him enough to kill him.

While the book does pick some easy targets for humor, it also paints a picture of fandom as a tight-knit community, bonding over their lack of social graces.

Bimbos of the Death Sun is something of a relic, having originally been published in 1988. Computers are common, but they're the clunky dinosaurs you needed special programs to copy disks on. Email also exists as something strange and new. The fan magazines many older SF fans speak of fondly are passed around during the fictional Rubicon, and listservs are in their infancy.

Despite the leaps and bounds in technology since the book's publication, it holds up well. The book adds several outsider-type characters who allow the reader an introduction into the world of fandom, which hasn't changed all that much in 24 years. Though, the acceptance of female fans, even those who might not be as attractive, and the existence of reluctant male virgins in their 20s, strikes me as more of an outsider view than reality.

Some of the aspects of the book didn't hold up as well. The notion in Jay Omega's book (the one this book is named after) that women are made stupid by a sun's radiation as possibly being sexist is dismissed, but I'm unconvinced. There's a lot of fat-shaming within the book; people who are described as corpulent are also seen stuffing their faces within the narrative. And, as loving a depiction as Bimbos of the Death Sun shows of fandom, it also contains a lot of stereotypes, and a really tedious explanation of the mechanics of D&D.

Still, Sharyn McCrumb is an excellent mystery writer, and this is a solid and amusing tale. If nothing else, I recommend you pick it up for the scene of a Scottish folk singer finding an audience who truly appreciates him in a room of filk singers.



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Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón


The Shadow of the Wind
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



It's been years since I've read this book, but I still remember the feeling of utter immersion in the Barcelona Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes about. I remember the sensory details, practically feeling the grit of dust inhabiting the long-forgotten places our young protagonist wanders through.

The Shadow of the Wind follows Daniel Sempere, whose father owns a bookstore called Sempere and Son, in the year 1945. His father takes Daniel to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where he adopts a book by Julian Carax. From there, Daniel becomes obsessed with finding out who Carax was, and what happened to him. The only person who can distract him from the search is the young woman with whom he falls in love.

This is an incredibly textured book. The language is highly evocative, and the surroundings do an excellent job of setting the scene. I've never been to Barcelona, but, after reading this book, I feel like I have.

Not that the book always paints the prettiest picture. This Barcelona is dark and dangerous and gritty, but ultimately fascinating.

This is a beautifully written book, deserving of its accolades. The translation I read was wonderfully done. It preserved the poetry of the language without muddling what was going on.



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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Writing Dialect

Image taken from this interesting blog post about tweeting
with an accent
Short version of this post on writing dialect: don't do it.

Dialect is regional differences in speech. The southern drawl, the New England flattening of r's, the tight-lipped midwestern accent, all have a distinct pattern that one could easily write phonetically, so you can hear how the characters sound. For most readers, the example that comes to mind when you talk about dialects is Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Misspellings abound, because words are written how the characters would pronounce them.

I'm not telling you to avoid dialect because I'm a grammar prescriptivist and cringe at misspellings, though. Bad grammar and misspelling can work in dialogue. The reason I so strongly recommend against it is because it's distracting. It slows the reader down.

Yes, dialect can also show a reader, quite distinctly, what a person sounds like. If I were to write in a book that someone said he had to "pahk the cah," you might guess that the person was from Boston or thereabouts. But, how long would it take you to figure out what that character needed to do? If you had no other clue I was approximating a Boston accent, you might have to say it aloud before the words made any sense. That's time you could've spent reading along to the next sentence.

In general, try to avoid anything that slows or stops your reader. It's bad enough you're giving chapter breaks or shifts in perspectives or jumps in time, but actually stopping a reader in the middle is one of the biggest blunders you can make. That's also why info dumps should be used sparingly, and why it's so important to achieve suspension of disbelief. You want to keep the reader in the story.

There are ways to imply dialect without forcing your reader to translate your dialogue. What I call soda might be called tonic, Coke, or pop, depending on where my characters are from, and a milkshake could be a frappe or a cabinet in certain parts of New England. If you're writing about Southerners, there's the ubiquitous "y'all," or, in part of Appalachia, "yins." When I lived in the South, I was constantly running up against requests to "put it up," instead of, "put it away," and I inspired more than a few stares when I remarked it was wicked hot outside.

Use regional differences realistically, though. A transplanted Southerner may emphasize her accent because Northerners find it cute, or she might do her best to get rid of it because of the assumption that Southerners are uneducated. (Please believe me when I say that I saw no basis for that stereotype where I lived down South.)

Just as your use of adjectives with negative connotations can build a sense of dread in a scene, the words characters choose can say a lot about them. You don't have to mangle your spelling to show your readers that a person just moved to town from far away.

And, for crying out loud, don't spell out foreigners' pronunciation. It's not only bad for the above reasons, it's insulting. Imagine your high school foreign language teacher transcribing your mistakes for publication, and you have a vague notion of what it's like.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Playing to Your Strengths

I've posted a lot about how to compensate for your writing weaknesses, but not as much about what to do with your strengths. If you've decided to write, I'm willing to bet there's at least one thing you're good at. Very few people choose to do something they're uniformly terrible at. Most writers I've spoken to, in fact, talk about a moment in their pasts when someone complimented some feature of their writing, and they decided from there to make a habit of it.

The thing about strengths is, if you're too busy working on your weaknesses, your strengths can languish. You can unlearn things, and slip back. Or, you can overuse the things you're good at, to the exclusion of picking up new tools.

Here are a few tips to handle your writing strengths:

  • Practice them. You can forget how to do something if you go too long without doing it, especially if your thoughts are crowded with other matters. Keep using your strengths.
  • Hone them. No matter how good you are, know there's room for improvement. My greatest strength when I started out (aside from my leg up on grammar knowledge) was my dialogue. That doesn't mean I haven't learned anything about dialogue since, and that I don't read other blogs for tips on how to improve. On the contrary, I'm always looking for how I might do better.
  • Integrate your new skills into the ones you're already good at. Try to deliberately write scenes that use both what you're good at, and a new skill you want to practice. If you're better at description than dialogue, try to balance them 50/50 in what you're writing. See how the use of the five senses enhances what your characters are talking about. Put some of the description into your well-spoken character's mouth. There's often a fair amount of overlap in writing tools, so being good at one thing often means it translates into another skill.
  • Use your strengths in moderation. Falling back on your strengths is a good way to write yourself out of a tight spot, to shatter your writer's block, or to gain confidence in what you're writing, but focusing on just one aspect of the craft is a poor way to build a story. The best books use many different storytelling techniques well. So, if you've read through what you've been working on, and you find yourself leaning heavily on what you're already good at, you need to deliberately shy away from it. As I said above, my strength is dialogue, but I was often filling several pages with it, to the exclusion of the plot. As fascinating as my characters were to listen to, it served no narrative purpose. I had to curb my impulse to let my characters talk for pages and pages, and instead move on to the action.
Regardless of what your writing strengths and weaknesses may be, you have the capacity to be one of the best, provided you're not content to rely on what you already know. So work on your weaknesses, but don't leave your strengths alone. They're what got you this far, aren't they?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Writing Female Characters

There are so many pieces of writing advice out there about how to write "strong female characters." Strength, though, implies she can fight or she has magical powers, and I think a female character can be a good one even if she has the fewest resources of anyone in the cast. Often, I'm rooting the most for characters who have the deck stacked against them, so it doesn't seem hard to grasp that a person with less power might make for a better heroine.

To me, what separates a good depiction of a female character from a bad one isn't her strength, but her agency. Loosely, agency means "freedom." Yes, it's a feminist term, but it's of tremendous use in measuring whether a female character is a strong one, or a sexist stereotype.

To measure a character's agency, ask yourself these questions:
  1. Does she make a decision?
  2. Is that decision important to the plot?
  3. Is her decision coerced, or between two awful outcomes?
  4. Does she deal with the consequences for her decision?
If the answer to 1, 2, or 4 is "no," or number 3 is "yes," I'm afraid you haven't a strong female character, but a flimsy cardboard replica of one. I don't care how much she can bench press; if she's there to be the hero's prize, to reinforce the hero's decision, or to be an obstacle on the hero's path to success, she isn't strong.

Lots and lots of books have female characters who don't have agency, and that's okay (depending on who you want as your audience, anyway). But if you think you have a strong female character and she doesn't pass the above test, you're fooling yourself.

There are also the problems of a man-with-breasts, who is a female character who doesn't act like a woman. That one's harder to articulate, because gender lines are frequently blurred. A female character can be cold, insensitive, or indifferent to children, and still be feminine. (A female character can also be kind, sensitive, or loving to her children, and still be strong.) What tends to put most characters into the definition is a combination of factors, most of which ignore the reality of growing up female in modern (or medieval) society. If she not only never had any limitations on her knowledge of fighting styles, but disparages other women who do, she might be a man-with-breasts character.

If you're in doubt about your realistic depiction of a female character, I'd recommend asking some female friends for input. Not just one, unless you know she won't lie to you, and she's pointed out bad female characterization to you in the past. Just as there's no such thing as one way to positively depict female characters, there is no one female perspective on what is a good depiction. So, ask around, get a good idea of what your heroine is missing, make sure she has agency, and you're on the right track.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review: Spellbent by Lucy A. Snyder


Spellbent
Spellbent by Lucy A. Snyder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I'd skipped over this book when it first came out, because it was one of a deluge of urban fantasy titles with an attractive woman with a bare midriff on the cover. It got lost in the shuffle. I picked it up because I heard the most recent installment was really good, and so now I'm building toward that one. It wound up better than I expected, but still uneven in quality. It's Lucy Snyder's first full-length novel, and it does show in places.

In Spellbent, our heroine, Jessie Shimmer, is helping her boyfriend, an older man and her mentor, summon a rain storm to stop a drought and save some local farms. In addition to the rain, they also call a demon, which sucks Cooper, the boyfriend, into the hell dimension it vacated. Then the city's most powerful wizard puts Jessie on a black list unless she signs an agreement that she won't go looking for her boyfriend, before she's had a chance to recover from her injuries.

The book was well-paced, for the most part. I felt pulled along by the story, and motivated to find out what happens next. But I also felt like the book had a very linear plot. It was like a video game: Jessie has a number of side quests so she can level up and get better weapons and gear, then it's off to fight the final boss. There were few surprises, and those that showed up lacked impact, somehow.

The pacing was also off in that some of the action felt abrupt. Jessie (or her familiar, who got some perspective sections) would announce what had to happen, and then, poof, it was done. I found myself glancing back a few paragraphs a lot to see if I missed something. Additionally, sometimes the action would be paused for Jessie to explain something about magic or the world, and it threw me out of the story a bit. Considering there's very little "down time" within the text, I guess the infodumps had to come in the middle of action scenes, but it still looked sloppy.

Also sloppy was the characterization for the bad guy. He was too evil, too well-connected, and the final confrontation a little too pat. I would've liked to see him fleshed out a bit more, rather than just being a mustache-twirling stereotype.

Lest it sound like I didn't like the book, I did. The world-building is interesting, this is a different enough premise that I don't feel like it's just another cookie-cutter urban fantasy, and I like Jessie as a protagonist. I plan on reading future books in this series. I just hope the pacing and plotting are smoother, is all.



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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: Summer Knight by Jim Butcher


Summer Knight
Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



It's difficult to divorce the sexism from my enjoyment of these books. I usually leave it alone, because I'm in the minority of readers bothered by it. But I often felt like this book went out of its way to rub in my face how manipulative and weak and sexy women are (unless they're ugly), and that affected my opinion. My opinion is that it takes a lazy writer to continue to characterize women this way after four books, and that Jim Butcher can't hide behind his character's "chivalry" anymore. He can't both present Harry as the most modern wizard among relics, and yet have him acting like he just stepped out of the Middle Ages when something curvaceous crosses his path.

And let's not get into how the female character who stands the best chance of evolving into something other than a stereotype is described as having been raped, and cries a lot in this book.

In Summer Knight, there's a war brewing between vampires and wizards, and Harry has to secure the Winter Court of the fae's allowing wizards to pass through "their lands." He has to solve a mystery and figure out what happened to the mantle of power the murder victim was holding onto. Why Harry is on the case is anyone's guess. I have no idea why anyone who doesn't need both hands and a flashlight to find their own backside couldn't have solved it. They certainly would've had a lower profile. Harry being a decoy so the real detective could investigate in peace would've made a much more plausible story. Everywhere he went, people were trying to kill him, and everyone recognized him, and things were always complicated by the other boneheaded things Harry had pulled.

That's not to say the book is bad. It made me cringe at the author's clumsiness in writing women or token foreigners. Of those, there's a wizened old Chinese sage, a Native American they call Injun Joe who carries a raccoon on his shoulder, a mysterious Gatekeeper is referred to as being Middle Eastern, and the one getting a promotion at the wizard meeting is the redneck stereotype who has a gun rack on his truck. The default setting for wizards is evidently white European male. If you're not, you're a walking stereotype.

But there are good moments, as well. Some of the lines come across as corny, but, if you actually like Harry, I can see where you might find them funny. The fairy battle was exciting, and there's some creative imagery. But my favorite part came at the very end, when Harry sits down to play a tabletop roleplaying game with some geeky werewolves. I have to admit, the notion of a guy who can really sling spells sitting down to roll a barbarian character next to people who can shift into scary wolves amused me.

If you're looking for something new in this book, having read the previous three, you will be vastly disappointed. This is more of the same. But, if you've liked the previous three books, well, it's more of the same.

At this point, as I remarked to a friend who really, really likes them, I'm listening to James Marsters read me a story. If he were narrating audio books I'm more likely to enjoy, I'd listen to those, instead.



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Grammar: Semicolons

There's an easy way to pick out the grammar prescriptivists in a room. They're the ones who, when you ask if people have a favorite mark of punctuation, perk up and give you an unhesitating answer.

For me, that mark is the semicolon. It's that thing you use on your computer to make a winking smiley. It shares a key with the colon ( : ), and it's what you get if you forget to hold down the shift key.

The semicolon's function is an emphatic comma. If you're writing out a list, and some of the things in the list need further separation, you use a semicolon to separate the main items.

For instance:
At the grocery store, she bought eggs; milk; butter; a salad with olives, spinach, and feta cheese; and some fresh fish for dinner.
 Its main purpose, though, is to connect sentences which would be run-ons or a comma splice without the semicolon. If you have two whole sentences which are related, you can join them with a semicolon:
I'm a night owl; I'm rarely in bed before 1 AM.
You also use it before however, moreover, thus, consequently, nevertheless, and therefore. Again, an example:
I rarely get enough sleep; consequently, I have quite the caffeine addiction. 
The thing about semicolons is, you can usually leave them out, except in complex lists, as outlined above. The purpose of a semicolon is entirely that of flow. Were I to write the above sentence as two, it might read as choppy or abrupt, but it would still be correct. The notion of a punctuation mark's primary purpose being to vary sentence lengths and aid the flow of the words appeals to me very much.

I distinctly remember never using semicolons until I learned them in high school, and then squashing them in wherever they would fit, once I had the hang of them. It was like the invention of the cordless phone: freeing and fun and overused for everyone but me.

I sprinkle them much more conservatively these days. You can overuse semicolons, and they're considered passé by some publishing circles. I'll continue to use them until an editor tells me to stop, but I'm not going to waste them on trivial sentences in the meantime.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Review: Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d'Art by Christopher Moore


Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'ArtSacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art by Christopher Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had some trepidation going into this. I'm a fan of Christopher Moore, but my knowledge of art history is limited to the time I went to the Museum of Fine Art with my high school French class. My art appreciation goes as far as, "Ooh, pretty."

This is not, luckily, a book meant for art majors. It's definitely outside the box I've mentally put Christopher Moore in, but that's a good thing. If I wanted to read everything he's written before, that's what rereading is for.

Sacré Bleu is about the French Post-Impressionists (and some Impressionists—there are flashbacks) and the color blue. It proposes that the famous paintings we admire today were all borne of the same inspiration: an immortal goddess-like figure who produces the most valuable color in the world from her skin by consuming the essence of the artists. It's a bizarre concept, but no more bizarre than horny sea creatures or King Lear told as a comedy.

The book follows Lucien Lessard, a baker and painter and friend of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. The characterization of Toulouse-Lautrec as a frequent patron of brothels and unsavory dance halls and a constant drunk made him difficult to like, but is apparently accurate. I can't tell if Moore was trying to make him likable or not. If he was, he failed. If he wasn't, it clearly didn't detract from the story to have him serving as Lucien's foil. Lucien is responsible and trusting and innocent by comparison, traits which make him an appealing character, and an appealing mark for those with predatory intentions.

The story includes full-color replicas of the paintings within the text, so, luckily, you don't have to try to picture what they're talking about. I took the book out from the library, but I intend to pick up my own copy when I can, for just that reason. It's no coffee table art book, but it's fun to flip through. They're all captioned with a twisted take on the painters' processes, which adds quite a bit to the humor of the novel.

Christopher Moore is best known for his humor, and it can seem subdued in this book. It's mostly the tongue-in-cheek or ironic kind, with few laugh-out-loud moments. There's some crude and juvenile humor, but I got the most amusement out of imagining the way scenes would look to passersby. Moore often juxtaposes absurdity next to people who haven't the slightest what to make of it, to great effect.

If you were worried about picking this up because you fear the subject matter, or you think it might be too dry, go ahead and pick this up. You have nothing to fear. If you already know about art history, you won't learn a thing, and you might even be annoyed by some of the inaccuracies written in for the sake of the story. But if you're hoping to learn something, there is an afterword which clears up a lot of the history.

I think Christopher Moore accomplished more than simply an amusing story outside his usual subjects with this book. I think he's made art more accessible to a lot of modern readers. For that, he deserves kudos.


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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Writing Levels

A couple of months ago, I posted a throwaway comment on Twitter:






I've been thinking about that comment a lot since I posted it, though, and talked about it with my "writing buddy." (Writing buddies are an informal pairing within my writing group. We're supposed to help keep the other person on track and check in. We don't, really, so it's something of a running gag to ask if we've checked in with our writing buddies, or if our writing buddy helped with a recent slump, or whatever. Yes, we all happen to be sarcastic. Maybe it's a writer thing?)

Anyway, I've realized since then that, though we wouldn't know how to go about quantifying such a thing, all of us in the writing group are on different levels in our writing. You can't quantify writing levels, because it's as nebulous as defining good writing or bad movies. For some, level one is where they pour ideas out onto a page, full speed ahead. For others, level one is finishing a short story. My posts are targeted to early-level writers who are just starting out, because that's when I wish I'd had the most guidance.

I won't say who in our writing group is on a higher level than who, because I'd probably be wrong. I wouldn't put myself at the highest level, because I'm not. We've all progressed since joining the group (at least, if the critique pieces are any indication), but some have progressed faster than others.

Leveling up one's writing is an ongoing process. You never stop learning and leveling up, and lessons come from all over. You might read a book about writing, or read a book that uses a technique you think you can integrate, or you might notice something about another writer that bothers you that you don't want to emulate. Wherever it comes from, it will make your job harder. You'll find yourself thinking about the words more deliberately, at least until you integrate the new skill. But to integrate, first you need to practice, and use it, and find how to make it work.

I can't tell you what your process will look like, though. Writing is not like a video game. There is no set, pre-programmed path where you build up XP and automatically gain points to spend on your writing skills. Nor is there a trophy at the end. If you're published, there will be other writers on the bestseller list. If you're on the bestseller list, someone else will be higher. If you're number one, someone else will have been at the top longer. If you break the record at the top, you'll still never be as successful as Stephen King. (My husband wondered, as I shared this post with him, who Stephen King compares himself to.)

Lest this post seem too useless, there is one thing you can take away from all this blathering about levels, and that's how you find a useful person who can critique your writing. Yeah, it's useful to have a writing group who can help you, but, if they're anything like mine, they're busy writing their own stuff and can't critique your entire novel, line-by-line. What is useful is to find someone near your level, perhaps a level higher, and ask that person if he or she will look over your stuff to give useful feedback. Obviously, it has to be someone you can trust, and who can be gentle or rough enough for your needs. And you can't hate that person's writing, because it's only fair you return the favor.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Good Stuff: Flavia de Luce Mysteries

I've been way too grumpy on here for too long, so it's time to trot out another in my very periodic series about things I enjoy. I've previously posted about the TV show Castle and the YA Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones.

When I was looking for audio books, back when I discovered I could go through a book a week with all the driving I was doing for work, I was browsing at the library and this cover caught my eye:

More information about this book here.

I'm not a big mystery reader. I've read some, and liked most of what I read, but I always give myself a headache trying to figure out the murderer. There's always that obscure detail I overlooked to miss the ending. I imagine those who like mystery series really like the detective who solves the case. Most mystery series are far along, with several dozen volumes. I believe in starting at the beginning and reading every last one, so I look at the time investment in some of those series, and I need a nap just thinking about it.

So the fact that there are only four published books in this series so far is a point in its favor, as far as I'm concerned. (It was just picked up for 4 more and there are 2 as-yet-unpublished, so there will be at least 10.) But that's not why I read it.

No, I read it for Flavia.

Flavia de Luce is 11 years old in 1950s England, and lives in a crumbling estate. Her mother died when she was an infant, and her father is emotionally distant. Her sisters are in no hurry to step in as surrogate mother figures; they're cruel and spiteful, and, in the oldest sister's case, vain. Flavia isn't the most lovable little sister (her aspirations for the future include becoming a serial poisoner), but she does have a dynamic and fascinating voice.

There's an ongoing mystery throughout all of the books, revolving around her family history and finding out more about the mother she never knew. Flavia understands that she takes after her mother in many regards, which may be why her still-grieving father keeps her at arm's length, and why her sisters, who remember and love their mother, torment her so.

But in the mysteries, themselves, Flavia inserts herself into the murder investigations, wanted or not, and is outraged to be shooed away. That this often puts her in danger proves only a minor inconvenience to the perpetually curious Flavia.

The area surrounding Buckshaw, Flavia's family's estate, is populated with an engaging cast of characters, and described in loving detail. Flavia spends her days riding a bike that used to belong to her mother, which allows her to explore a good portion of the countryside. Most of the villagers treat Flavia with an amused tolerance, but she has those she can call her friends among the small population of Bishop's Lacey.

As I mentioned above, I first encountered the books on audio, and I've continued to listen to them as they come out. Jayne Entwistle's narration really brings Flavia to life. If I ever read paper versions of these books, I know I'll hear it in my head in Ms. Entwistle's voice. During lighter moments, she sounds like she's half-laughing as she reads, and she has a vast array of accents that mark each character's distinct voice.

Whether or not you're a mystery reader, I highly recommend these books. They're funny, dark, and very enjoyable.

My reviews of book 1, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and book 2, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag are on Goodreads. I have reviews on the blog for book 3, A Red Herring Without Mustard, and book 4, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Depression and Writing

storm clouds over dark oceanI wrote about turning your disadvantages to your advantage, but sometimes, there's no way around it. There are some things that will get in your way, and they won't help. No amount of wishing it's true will create more hours in the day or make you healthy and alert when you're sick, and you just have to spring back from your setbacks without wallowing in guilt.

In my post about making the most of the time you have to write, I advocated treating writing as your second job, with just as much priority as whatever you get paid to do. That includes taking time off when you need it. Obviously, if you're spending the vast majority of your writing time making excuses and playing a game, or surfing the internet, or doing things you consider more fun, writing isn't the priority you thought it was, and you're fooling yourself. But, successful writing also means recharging from time to time.

I don't need that reminder, but I do need to give myself permission to not beat myself up over it. You see, I was diagnosed with depression in the spring of 1998. Through a combination of therapy and drugs, I stabilized, and went back off the drugs with a doctor's supervision and a strong network of support through my school and friends. That makes me one of the lucky ones, in that the side effects of antidepressants are worse than my day-to-day depression symptoms. I pay attention to my energy and stress levels, and, generally, I cope just fine, albeit with less enthusiasm than most.

But, as The Bloggess will tell you, depression lies. I'll think I'm doing just fine, balancing my energy and priorities, and suddenly I'll feel drained of my motivation. Then I'll start feeling guilty about the various obligations I haven't followed through on, and it spirals down from there. I don't know I'm depressed, sometimes, until I've entertained startlingly graphic thoughts of self-harm.

I have various coping mechanisms for my depression, but none of them involve writing in any quantity. Living inside my head is dangerous when there's something in there that wants to hurt me. Additionally, it feeds my inner editor, to the point where I question every single word as I type it, and I wind up convinced I'm the worst writer ever to commit words to a page. It's unhelpful, to say the least, and lingers long after the depressive episode has passed.

I do think there are ways my depression has given me perspective I've been able to use in my writing, but I wouldn't call that a benefit. To do so would imply there's something good about a force I have to spend every waking moment fighting against, and I don't want to encourage it. If I could've gotten to this point in my life without a mental monster to fight against, I would've. Given the chance to undergo a cure, I'd be one of the first in line.

I don't write a lot about my personal life on this blog, and I promise I won't make it a habit. I share the above so that you know it's okay if you don't have the motivation to write today, or for the rest of the week, or if life gets in the way. So long as you're writing, making progress on what you want to do, and finishing, you're in the game. You may not be perfect, but neither am I, despite the smokescreen my blog sets up.

And, if you can't write this week because you're too depressed to do anything but go about your daily life, know you're not alone. I can't be the only one who takes virtual sick days off writing because I need to prioritize my eventual mental recovery over the dream of one day being a published author.

Review: Variant by Robison Wells


Variant
Variant by Robison Wells

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



Variant is a YA tale best enjoyed by its target market, and tolerable as something to check if it's appropriate for a younger audience. While the premise initially intrigued me, my curiosity is sated, and I will not be continuing to read this series.

In Variant, 17-year-old Benson Fisher has a scholarship to Maxfield Academy, which is his escape from bouncing from one foster home to the next. Upon entry, though, he finds that the students are locked in, and tracked by chips that can't be removed. His goal is escape, and he makes no secret of his resentment of being trapped there, even if the world outside is no better.

The first half of the book is devoted to daily life at school, the three "gangs" that everyone joins and which determine how glamorous your job will be (students also perform all the work, except for shadowy behind-the-scenes stuff), and the paintball challenges the students participate in on a random basis. There are several things presented as true with little to no proof, which, I suppose, is why they're using teenagers rather than adults. I imagine teenagers as slightly more skeptical, but maybe that was just me.

The early sections have an awful lot of navel-gazing. By that I mean the perspective character sits and thinks and speculates and jumps to the wrong conclusions. When I realized this is a series rather than a standalone, it made more sense, but it didn't make me like it. The author had to put in a lot of filler to fluff this up to a whole book, so that it could end on a proper cliffhanger.

The second half of the book is far more compelling. Things are revealed, events are triggered, and the stakes are raised. Were the entire book paced like the second half, this book would be four stars, at least.

The thing is, I think a teen reader would like that first half of the book. I found it an overwrought metaphor for feeling trapped in high school and feeling suffocated by one's life and how people backstab one another without provocation, and the artificiality of it all, but I imagine a teen reader might appreciate the transparency. Also, it has the wish fulfillment of high school without adults, plus being able to shoot your classmates with paintballs, with a heavy dose of "Be careful what you wish for." I saw the twist at the end coming a mile away, but I think younger readers might be surprised.

As for appropriate ages, I can see this being read and enjoyed by middle school and up. There's some violence, and people die, and there are bone-exposing injuries. The description isn't terribly graphic, though the main character is beaten up constantly, and people are, evidently, bags of blood, considering how they bleed everywhere at the slightest provocation.

I listened to this book on audio, and I had no quibbles with the audio production. The narrator reads clearly and distinctly, and depicts female characters without affecting a falsetto. He has enough inflections in his repertoire that different characters were even identifiable without dialogue tags. My only issue is that, when people shout in the book, he raised his voice, and I had to turn down my volume. People shout a lot in this book.

Overall, if you're between 13 and 17, you'll probably like Variant. If you're younger, you may want to wait a couple of years. If you're older, and you're not screening it for your preteen reader, you may be disappointed.



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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Cynic's Guide to Genre

Had Ambrose Bierce stepped into our century and written an entry in his Devil's Dictionary for "genre," I imagine he'd write something like, "How booksellers know how far from the front windows to place your book." Within genres, there are certainly those more highly regarded than others. Outside specialty bookstores, you'll almost always find certain genres the same relative distance from the registers. You can tell how well-respected a genre is by how easy it is to find.

In an ideal world, we'd all write the stories we want to, people who want to read them would find them, and people wouldn't suffer through books that aren't to their tastes. Even as we move away from physical bookshelves, though, we still classify books by their genres via links that help us find the book we might be looking for. It's more flexible, in that a book can be "shelved" online in more than one section, but readers tend to approach the genres they click on with certain expectations. Therefore, even if your goal is to subvert the genre tropes, it's important to know what they are, in the first place. You can't know that if you don't identify which genre you're shooting for, first.

Loosely, the genres you might be writing, in no particular order, are:

  • Literary—People who read only literary fiction will bristle at the notion it's a genre, but it is. It's about everyday people experiencing everyday conflict, and it's usually depressing. Usually involves a man cheating on his wife in some capacity.
  • Chick Lit—Literary fiction that isn't as depressing, marketed to women. Generally has pastel or pink covers and pictures of high heels, clothes, or shopping bags. If someone cheats, it's either because the cheated-on deserved it, or because you're not supposed to like the character.
  • Romance—Easily identified by the illustration of people who've misplaced some clothing on the cover, and therefore have to snuggle for warmth. This is the least-respected, best-selling of the genres. The bestsellers may come from literary, but romance is quietly selling hundreds of thousands of copies, spread out over more titles. Paranormal romance borrows elements from urban fantasy, but its use of tropes keeps it in the romance genre.
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy (Speculative Fiction)—Sometimes separated out, sometimes grouped into the same category, but considered the same level of respectability from the outside. Science fiction's further subdivisions are hard, space opera, military, near-future, and dystopian. Which genre you write for depends on how much you know about science and weapons. Fantasy involves things from folklore, and is subdivided into urban and epic, which is determined by whether you're setting it in a modern-day or medieval-based setting. Steampunk can be fantasy or science fiction, depending on how realistic the science.
  • Mystery—Someone died, or is going to, and our Intrepid Smart Person is out to solve the case and stop people from dying. Thriller and suspense are often attached to this genre.
  • YA/Children's—These are separated out clearly by the intended age of the reader in bookstores, with the sections getting less colorful the higher in age you go. By the time you get to teen novels, it's black covers with a splash of red as far as the eye can see.
  • Nonfiction—Subdivided into memoir, history, reference, biography (with autobiography as an offshoot), social sciences, and humor. My one nonfiction course in college taught me that the only difference between a memoir and a story based on personal experience is the style in which it's written.
If you're writing a self-help, religion, western, reference book, or a cookbook, I suspect my site won't be terribly helpful, so I've left those off my list. Later, I'll probably expand on the ones that did make the list, with less snark. For now, though, I'll leave this be, before I say something mean.

Review: Fangland: A Novel by John Marks


Fangland: A Novel
Fangland: A Novel by John Marks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars



I picked up Fangland because the notion of a vampire running a TV news program from the inside, from the back description, intrigued me. Instead, I got a faithful adaptation of Dracula, brought to a post-9/11 New York City. I'm not unhappy with the story I did get, but it didn't match my expectations.

If you've read the original Dracula and liked it, you are highly likely to enjoy Fangland. On the other hand, if all you know of the vampire legend is from movies, you're likely to be profoundly disappointed. Many modern readers have picked up Dracula and wrinkled their noses at how boring and unsexy the source material is.

Fangland is similarly neutered, and the action sequences are few and far-between. Like Dracula, it's told through letters and journals and correspondence (in this case, emails). It does change a large portion of the story, though. Instead of Jonathan Harker, we get Evangeline, a young associate producer for the most-respected news program in the country. She's scouting Ion Torgu, an underground leader of speculated crimes in Eastern Europe, to see if there's a story. There is, but it isn't one she gets to dictate. Instead, she winds up some distance away with no memory of how she got there, thirsting for blood. Meanwhile, her co-workers back in NYC speculate and worry about her disappearance, until people start dying and there's a strange static hiss that sounds like place names everywhere you go on the 20th floor.

The original Dracula was an embodiment of a bloodthirsty warlord, but this defanged vampire (he drinks blood by cutting people with a knife and bleeding them into a pail) serves a deeper purpose of remembering the human faces behind the cruelty people do one another. That's where the book falls apart, for me, because the author seems to want to have it both ways. Torgu is both a monster and needed, to be feared and pitied. I might have wrapped my mind around that more thoroughly if Torgu hadn't killed dozens of innocent people in the text. That he should constantly name off cities of atrocities, but not include his own murders in the numbers, struck me as contrived, and it muddled the point of the ending.

In addition, the writing doesn't overcome the limitations of the style. It can be difficult to tell a story through correspondence, and I don't think the author quite rises to the task. He has characters transcribing conversations word-for-word in emails, down to where people paused to gaze out windows. He has conversations for which the recipient was present related in exacting detail. And one of Austen Trotta's journal entries is a recap of everything we've already heard in the narrative, which was frustrating and unnecessary. How convenient that the characters know their words are going into a book.

Overall, the author set himself a difficult task, updating a horror classic to a post-9/11 world and making it relevant to that world. His interpretation is interesting, but not always successful. Depending on how well you liked the original story, you may find this entertaining, or frustrating.

I listened to the book on audio, which had several different narrators. It did an excellent job of separating out sections and making it clear who we were following, except where they'd swap out narrators, and then I'd wonder why "the old guy" was narrating for a young woman, where "the news guy" had reported her sections before. I liked the voices, and most of them fit their personalities well, but it was sometimes confusing. Also, the tendency of two narrators to whisper when characters shouted sounded laughingly funny.



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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Writing Horror

Basking sharks are actually harmless. Not that they look it.
When I was first starting out as a writer, I wrote mostly horror. I was reading a lot of Stephen King at the time, and I read an interview he gave where he said he always left the bathroom light on in strange hotels to keep the monster under the bed away. He went on to talk about how he wouldn't be the horror writer he is without that scaredy-cat tendency.

I've already mentioned this story, in my post about too much imagination. It bears repeating, though, because now I'm going to talk about how to tap into that to write something that scares people.

There are various types of horror, but the two I'll discuss here are gross-out and frightening horror. I'm sure they have better names elsewhere, but that's what I call them, and this is my blog.

Gross-out horror is the type where your stomach churns, and you swallow back the urge to vomit. Slimy monsters, scads of blood, viscera and popped eyeballs, all invoke gross-out horror. The most effective way to gross out your reader is to make them experience the horror with a sense they weren't expecting. The closest I came to throwing up while listening to an audio book was at the description of a beheaded man's blood making a whistling sound as it jetted out. I've heard plenty of descriptions of the sight of blood, about how it sprays everywhere, but that whistling sound sidesteps cliché and makes it something I can imagine.

Frightening horror, on the other hand, is horror that makes your heart beat faster, your pupils dilate, your palms sweat. You relate to the characters' fear, and you feel it for yourself. Frightening horror will stick with you long after the book is closed or the credits roll. The next time you have to cross a room after you've shut out the lights and you see a dark shape in the corner, it'll leap to mind.

Or, maybe you're much braver than I am, and you'll only get a temporary adrenaline rush while you're reading or watching that scary movie. If so, I envy you.

In any case, I've always thought gross-out horror is easier to write than the frightening kind. It's one thing to be over-the-top gross, but quite another to draw the reader into your imagination, and make him or her feel what you feel. I know a lot of horror writing uses both gross-out and the frightening kind of horror, but I have a lot more respect if something can make people feel.

As I said above, the best way to use gross-out horror is to put the reader in the moment by invoking unexpected senses. But how does one scare people?

Generally, it involves a sense of anticipation. Once you show the scary monster, the reader (or viewer) can see its weak points. They can see that it works by the same rules as everything else. It's much scarier in their imagination. I know people who, upon seeing the whole creature at last in Alien, laughed, because it wasn't as scary as they'd thought from the random glimpses throughout the movie.

It also involves going after what really scares people. At our core, we all fear death, we fear pain, we fear rejection, we fear what we don't understand, and we fear being alone. The more of those you can invoke without naming them, the more you're going to frighten your reader.

You don't need to be a fraidy cat like me to figure out what will scare people. It helps, but it's not necessary. If you've ever had the sort of dream where you've woken drenched in sweat, certain that the creeping horror from your dream is under your bed and will grab your ankles if you get up, you know fear. Use that.

Do not, however, transcribe your dreams. My most frightening dreams are about the most mundane things, and I often laugh about how scared I was when I tell other people.

For an excellent example of how to write horror, I would highly recommend this post by Cherie Priest (link goes to her blog), which scared me so badly I had to get the cat to accompany me to the bathroom on the sunniest afternoon in May history.

Review: Blackout (Newsflesh Trilogy #3) by Mira Grant


Blackout
Blackout by Mira Grant

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Before I start my review for the conclusion to the NewsFlesh trilogy, I need to disclose a couple of points for fairness. First, Seanan McGuire (whose pseudonym is Mira Grant) is my favorite writer. Second, I couldn't possibly dislike a book that has one of my favorite people as an awesomeness-personified Shantytown resident. Indy is recognizably Indigo, a friend I met online, got to meet one year at Dragon*Con, and who I hold in high regard. Indy's appearance in Blackout so excited me that I poked my husband awake to tell him. That's what he gets for reading it before I could.

As I mentioned above, Blackout is the third book in the NewsFlesh trilogy, about a post-apocalyptic America where we've adjusted to zombies in our midst. Life is unrecognizable in many ways, and yet it goes on. People still travel, still work and socialize and have leisure time. Most interaction happens online, though, because gatherings of people may turn into a death trap should someone spontaneously amplify.

Book one followed a group of bloggers at After the End Times, covering a presidential campaign. During the campaign, they uncover a conspiracy, and a weaponized form of the virus that zombified a large portion of the world. Book two is the continuation of that investigation, which leads deeper than anyone might have suspected. Book three brings us to the source, resolves the mystery at last, and gives us some bittersweet moments along the way. Not everyone makes it to the end, but, prevalent as death is in the post-Rising world, it's never treated trivially. Every death has an impact, and means something, in the end.

I liked how this book wrapped up the conflict. It was as tightly-plotted as the previous two books, and the conclusion was well worth some 1800 pages of build-up. It was a real page-turner. The alternating viewpoints dialed up the tension significantly; I kept wanting to know what had happened in the other viewpoint, until I got to the end of the one I was reading. Then I wanted to continue that one. More than two viewpoints would've annoyed me, but bouncing back and forth did a lot to keep me reading.

I think this book keeps all the promises made at the start of Feed. It fleshes out (no pun intended) a world that's alien to our own, and yet comes as a logical conclusion to what leads up to it.

Seanan McGuire has written on her blog that there will be more stories in the NewsFlesh world, just not about the Masons. That story has been told.

I'm looking forward to those stories. I'm also looking forward to rereading this series to spot all the breadcrumbs that showed us what was going to happen.



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