Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Close third - the cheating POV

Writing is tough.

Even when you've got your plot figured out, your characters, the arcs, all that good stuff.  How do you actually tell the story?

First person?  Third person?  The rarely-used second person?

And beyond that: past tense?  Present tense?

These things can greatly affect the way in which your text is received, the way the human brain processes and interprets the words.  The way the reader experiences them.

And if you're like me, you fall back on the easy one.  Close third.

Actually, I'll admit that I'm exaggerating here for effect.  Someone a while back wanted me to write this blog post, and I finally am getting around to it now.  If I get any comments below, they are sure to be angry ones!  But let me explain.

Third person is more... removed.  Obviously.  You - the writer - are not sitting in the character's head the way you are in first person, where everything is a direct translation of the character's thoughts.  Instead, you are the narrator, describing what the character sees, thinks and feels.

But "close" third: that is somewhat different.  In this POV, the writer is close enough to the character's head that he/she almost conveys it in first person - but not quite.

In essence, it's a way to get the benefits of first person POV without actually having to mess with the
headache that brings with it.  It's cheating.

No, no it's not really cheating.  It's my favorite POV to use - and usually to read, truth be told.  But it sure is easier than being restricted to first person, and can convey more immediacy and relatability than a strict third can.

Plus (and here's where I really rely on the crutch) it allows me the freedom (which I abuse mercilessly) to use my natural tendency toward lengthy, wordy sentences in my role as narrator - while also writing punchy, snappy text in character as the protagonist!

Best of both worlds!

Except in rewrites I always have to tone down this disparity.  At times I can even tell on reading back when I stopped writing for one day and took it up again the next.  One day I may have been extra flowery, the next super-slangy.  Editing is partially about fixing this.

But I still have that leeway.  That flexibility to incorporate my writerly inclinations with my character's more off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness way of thinking.

Is that a cheat?  It is the way I do it.

And then I have to fix it.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Book Review: "Ink and Bone" by Rachel Caine

Hey.  Been a while.

I have been so busy writing (or, at times, avoiding writing) that I have ignored this blog.  Shame on me.

I have several topics in mind, but for now: here's my Goodreads book review for "Ink and Bone".

Happy reading!

That I didn't give this book 5 stars is no slight on the novel.  For me, those are (and ought to be) rare.  "Ink and Bone" gets a solid 4.25 stars, and is very, very good.

One of the things I liked most about it is the thing that may be causing the (very few) detractors to have a hard time: this book cares very little about plot.

It's true.  There's barely any actual plot in this book.  And it's all the better for it.

One of the books "Ink and Bone" is being compared to all over the map is "Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone", which is ridiculous on the face of it.  Neither the tone nor the content is at all similar, and apart from the rather vague alchemical machinations behind the scenes, the characters in this book neither see nor perform 'magic'.

And yet, like "The Philosopher's Stone", this book uses the 'year at school' setting as a tool to drag the reader along.  In the Harry Potter book, besides a vague sense that Voldemort is up to something and his scheme will need to be defeated, the only real plot structure is: Harry goes to school.  The incidents that occur, the real 'plot', is just Harry going to classes.  And then there's a big end-piece.

Sort-of similarly, "Ink and Bone" uses the fact that the characters are attending a class to earn a spot working for The Library as a way for the reader to infer a kind of forward momentum.  The 'plot' only drives forward insofar as time moves ahead to a certain destination.  There is no villain as such (debatable, but give me this one for now) nor is there a goal to achieve or set obstacles to overcome.  There is no overarching narrative in the sense that the reader can understand an endpoint that needs to be achieved, and what the hero is required to do to attain it, what hurdles he must jump to win the day.

There is a timeline set out before Jess (the protagonist) and us.  And the book moves ever closer to that point.  This is the only sense of momentum author Rachel Caine feels the need to give us.

And quite right she is, too.

This sort of 'false momentum' is all the rope the story needs to drag itself along, to give it a sense of driving forward narratively.  Then all the real work can be done with the characters, which is what 'story' essentially is.

Jess, you see, is something of a smuggler.  In an alternate history where the Library of Alexandria runs the world, and has supreme authority over all collective knowledge, the black market has a keen interest in original books.  And Jess' father is one of those black marketeers.

So when Jess winds up having to apply for a position working for the very Library he has been taught to oppose, an intriguing moral conflict is posed.

Setting him and his ideals against a cast of diverse characters with their own agendas and viewpoints adds even more fuel to the (Greek) fire, and this is where the actual story takes place.  The story is Jess and his instructor and his fellow students learning to deal with one another, to respect one another, and the various interesting ways they interact and grow as a result.

Events certainly take place - big, important ones.  Life-threatening and enthralling ones.  But nothing that I'd call a 'plot', because they stand alone as incidents that do not essentially contribute to any overarching narrative.  They are simply things that happen - but what those 'things that happen' do is affect the characters in fascinating ways that reveal (and change) who they are at their cores.

Are there flaws in the book?  Of course there are.  (Show me a book without them.)  For my money, the opening segments setting up Jess' world are too far removed from the setting of the rest of the book, and would be better excised.  They set up an expectation for a certain type of story that we learn some time later is not to be the case.

I would also postulate that the reason some readers give up early on, feeling that the book is 'slow' or 'dry', is simply down to extremely long chapters!  Later on, the book is divided into easier-to-swallow segments, but the interminable length of those early portions leads one to feel that the book is dragging on and leading nowhere - when simple chapter divides would kick up the pace by themselves.

As, of course, would not wasting quite so much time setting up Jess' life in London which will not bear much relation to the rest of the novel at all.  But I've talked about that already...

Jess is a well-defined character, with certain notions inbuilt thanks to his upbringing which are challenged by his own experiences as a student.  While he's neither the wise-cracking, fun-loving rogue you instantly fall in love with, nor the wide-eyed ingenue the reader can put themselves in the shoes of, Jess is likeable and interesting in his own right.

The other students are less dimensional, but diverse and entertaining enough.  There's not quite time in a book of this length to get fully into the heads of so many players, but the author very quickly lets us know who these people from around the world are, what their biases are, and how they will relate to one another.

She then spends the book picking that apart and letting the characters grow and develop based on their interactions.

More interesting (at least to me) was the instructor: Christopher Wolfe.  A hard-nosed, by-the-book teacher at first glance, as we read more and more, as Jess' experiences teach us more, we see something else entirely.  We understand the man, where he comes from, what has made him this way, and that the surface is a poor source to make one's judgments based upon.

I look forward to the later books in the series.  Seeing more of Jess, more of Morgan.  But mostly, I want to see what becomes of Wolfe - because he is the aspect of this book I became most intrigued by.

The alternate reality this is based upon uses some hocus-pocus that I feel could have best been replaced by something less obviously mystical, but I admit this is a matter of taste.  Some major developments rest upon it, but I think something more ambiguous and more technologically-justifiable would suit the 'alternative history' angle better, as what is here removes itself just a little too far from our world.

The sentry machines I can buy into.  The 'magic'?  Less so, in this context - though I'm a big fantasy fan in general.

More to my taste was the political flavor to the whole endeavor.  The Library, the cutters, the Burners.  You may begin the novel feeling one way about these people/organizations, and yet feel quite different by the end.  Indeed, I should be much surprised if you did not.

Will you know exactly how to feel about every group by the conclusion of this book?  I should hope not; it is nothing so black-and-white as that.  And this is the ingredient that (I feel) really makes the book soar.

Who is in the right?  Who is in the wrong?  As in real life, it is not cut and dried, and everyone seems to have a little of both mixed in.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review: "Weapons Grade Snake Oil"

It's been a few weeks since I read this book, and time constraints have not allowed me to write this review any sooner.

For this reason, some of the specific things I may have wished to comment upon while reading the book may have slipped my mind.  Nonetheless, here are my thoughts on the book as a whole.

The Faction Paradox universe has fostered some truly wonderful pieces of fiction.  In fact, the quality level is so high for the series that when I label "Weapons Grade Snake Oil" as middle-of-the-pack for this property, it is in no way a dismissal.

If this book is more "Head of State"/"Warring States" than "Newtons Sleep"/"Brakespeare Voyage" it only means that it is a very good book and doesn't quite hit the heights of those in the Faction Paradox universe that I feel are among the best novels I have ever read.

Like the best Faction fiction, it is full of ideas.  Possibly too many, in that there are so many notions tossed out that I wish would be explored more fully and I often found myself wanting the book to be about some of those ideas rather than the story we were getting.

But then the next great idea would happen, and I'd want to follow that one.  And so on, and so on.

Somewhat unusually for the Faction (though hardly unprecedented) this book focuses mainly on fun.  It is in nature a 'heist' story, though a unique take on one.  Rebellious Faction member Father Christémas has a plan to steal a relic of the time before the anchoring of the thread - an item called the "2nd Second".

To do this, he puts together an unlikely team that includes Faction runaway Sojourner Hooper-Agogo, his own servant Cousin Chaz, and the Time LordHouseworlder called The Hussar with his own assistant Anne Bonny.  There's a lot of double-crossing and conflicting agendas at play, which allows for some very nice character interplay that doesn't unfold as you might expect.

The neatest ideas are not the vaguely-defined concepts like the 2nd Second or Blue Praxis, but concepts behind entire cultures like the cymbiotes [sic - and for a reason] where Sojo comes from, or the gambling society of the Chance Coteries.

My favorites, though, are related to The Hussar and his assistant, real-life pirate Anne Bonny.  This
estranged Houseworlder has gone through elective semantectomy to have his given name removed - leaving only the title of The Hussar.  The implications for the series which Faction Paradox spun off of are quite intriguing.

Also, his relationship with his timeship, the Kraken, is... interesting.  Sadly Anne Bonny isn't as good as the red-headed historical character from another Faction novel (the incomparable "Newtons Sleep") but she is interesting enough in her own way.  She certainly doesn't get as much exposure as Aphra Behn did in the other book, as she is not as central a character.

Each (short) chapter is given a "Dune"-style quotation at the beginning.  Some of these are fascinating; some have the feel of later "Dune" books where Frank Herbert was clearly long grown weary of the necessity he had given himself of coming up with this stuff every few pages.  As there are even some real excerpts among the fake ones (I think?) it lends a real authenticity to the world(s) being created.

If there's a particular failure with the book then it is sadly with the heist plot itself - which is central to the book's narrative.  The rules are vague, the destination unclear, and the resolution abrupt and deliberately confusing.

I get that this is Faction Paradox and there are things we simply will not understand.  But the way it plays out is unsatisfying, underwhelming, and as far as I can tell, not actually set up in any way.  (Though I'm happy to be proven wrong on this in subsequent rereads.)

That this bathetic resolution does not damage the book as a whole is a testament to the fact that everything else is not only done well, but is engaging enough that the plot basically is of little interest anyway.  I do dearly wish we could have spent some more time with the Bankside crew.  I haven't even talked here about Cousin Haribeaux (whose cybernetic nature and nomenclature could lead one to associate him with the Kandyman!) or Cousin Rupert and what they get up to together.

Nor the politics of the Eleven Day Empire, and what Godmother Antigone has planned for Father Christémas.  For that matter, Sojo herself and the future of her society would be enough for a complex and satisfactory novel.

All of this stuff being lumped in together means that none of it gets developed fully, but feels instead like existing realities we get a mere taste of before necessarily moving on.  "Weapons Grade Snake Oil" is a cruise ship where we barely go on shore before it's time for the next leg of the trip.  Sure, we miss the exciting locale we just visited, but there's something just as inviting around the bend.

And I loved all of it.

(3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 if we ignore the distracting typos throughout)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Killing Your Babies With the Bathwater

For writers, the phrase "kill your babies" is something we are used to hearing over and over.

No, not because we're part of some freaky, Manson-like cult.  This piece of advice is to remind us that sometimes an idea, a character, a sub-plot, can be holding back the work as a whole but we are too fond of it to (as Elsa would urge us) let it go.

A lot of the time you have to "kill your babies".  Throw out the trash that's hurting your fiction, regardless of how much you might have grown attached to it.

And yet, a part of me resists that advice with all of my strength.  Is it just my petty attachment to my (obviously wonderful) ideas getting in my way?  Or is there something wrong with the famous advice?

Probably the former, I'll admit, but allow me to explore this idea somewhat on the page here.  You see, if a writer is unduly attached to a particular aspect of his or her writing, perhaps that "baby" is not holding the story back but is the one part giving it life.

Look, I understand the aphorism.  And I'm sure most of the time it's right.  But sometimes - just sometimes - we might find ourselves throwing out that baby with the bathwater.  What was intended to save the story, by cutting out the parts fighting against it, instead gets rid of the very heart that beat at the center.

A (possibly poor) example, if you will.  Many years ago I was (for the sake of writing practice) attempting to condense five books of David Eddings' "The Belgariad" into one screenplay of 120 pages.

Madness, sure, but it was an exercise.  As I pared it down, and down, and down, it resembled the source material less and less.  Fine then, I said, let's change it to an original work instead, if I'm altering it to that extent anyway.

So I turned this into that, nipping and tucking and snipping until I had a story that resembled "The Belgariad" no more than, say, "The Lord of the Rings".

And yet.  And yet...  One scene remained.  The part where Garion and Ce'Nedra bathe together in the stream.  I couldn't get rid of it, I loved it too much.  But with that piece intact, it was very clearly a "rip-off" of "the Belgariad".  No matter the name changes, the source material shone through.

So the scene had to go.  But I couldn't.  That one scene (small as it is) in one of the 5 books was everything to me.  The lynchpin, the centerpiece, the pivot on which the entire story turned.  To remove that was to pluck the heart from its chest Temple of Doom style, and I could not do it.

Thus I abandoned the screenplay entirely.  Leaving in the bathing scene would make it too reliant on the source material, taking it out killed the entire story stone dead.

For me, in that instance, the baby that needed killing was the story.  It couldn't be done.

I faced a similar issue with "Straw Soldiers" - my first novel.  A mistake (I'll admit it) early on hampered the experience of the book.  And yet getting rid of it would destroy the presentation and development of the main character in the book.

So vital was this element (an element which held back the book quite obviously) that I strongly considered changing the entire premise of the six-book series to accommodate it, to make it no longer a flaw.

When I realized just what I was proposing, I decided this was a baby that could not be killed.  Yes, keeping it in hampered the impact of the novel - I know it did - but taking it out would be worse.  So much worse.

Is killing your babies a good piece of advice?  I'm sure it is.  Just, when you're working on that, make sure that what you're excising is not the heart and soul of your book, your screenplay, your poem.  Maybe sometimes, it's the bathwater that needs changing instead.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: "Captain Hawklin and the Skyhook Pirates"

Could also be called:

Sky Captain and the Temple of Doom.

I love a good pulp novel - and a good pulp movie serial as well. Here I get something of both.

For while this book is a tribute to the old pulp works, to me it reads more as a pastiche of the cinematic pulp adventures than the written ones. Indeed, the author seems to say as much in the book itself.

Furthermore, I catch more than a hint of the modern tributes to the pulp classics. For example, it feels more like Sky Captain than it does Sky Raiders. More The Rocketeer than The King of the Rocket-Men.

And that's not a bad thing. A modern sensibility to the period-pastiche is a nice touch which I appreciate. And while it does a good job emulating a 1930s environment (I was able to picture the whole thing in black and white) I personally think it has elements of a more contemporary storytelling style that help it remain relevant to today's reader.

It's not too deep, I'll tell you that. Nor is it trying to be. What this book wants (and what it succeeds at) is to be a rollicking adventure drenched in the spirit of 1930s pulp sensibilities. It is pretty steadily-paced with a plethora of cliffhangers, and it never flags.

Some storytelling problems include very uneven chapter lengths (which disrupt the pacey flow a tad) and a very swift ending which follows a late plot revelation that could have fueled much more story beyond that point.

In addition (and this is the only thing that knocks the rating down a peg) there are frequent (and I mean ubiquitous) typos and punctuation errors. If these bug you too much (and they usually do for me) then prepare yourself because they are impossible to ignore. A lot of word repetition finds its way in as well, though this is a stylistic criticism rather than a technical one.

I don't want to seem down on this work as I enjoyed it a lot (and look forward to reading the sequels which this initial book leaves room to improve upon) but the flaws have to be noted. And they do detract - even if less than they might have.

"The Skyhook Pirates" is intentionally derivative. Don't expect much innovation here. The skill involved here was stitching together various elements to achieve a surprisingly cohesive whole. It ought not to be as good as it is with so many disparate ideas masquerading as one story, but it works dammit. The diversity helps make the plot seem fresh as the story unfolds - like each new chapter of the movie serial has its own character, but is telling one overarching story.

So, yeah. Get it if you like old pulp stories. Avoid it if you don't, because it makes no pretense to be anything other than what it is - and rightfully so.

Very entertaining.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

How to present diversity

Okay, so I've been busy writing my book and not this blog.  Sorry 'bout that.

But an interesting conversation I had on Twitter about presenting your characters that are people of color brought up issues that I have struggled with in the "Sleepwar Saga" series I'm writing now.  The poster made a very good point, and yet I can't say I 100% agree, either.

The Tweeter in question advised writers to state up front the ethnicities of their non-white characters.  The poster said that the presumed-white mentality is so strong that if you don't bring ethnicity up as one of the first things about your character, they will be assumed white by your audience and that view will be hard to shake.

I agree with this, actually.  I think diversity is important - not just in regards to race, but sexuality and physical ability, too - and so it is important that the reader recognizes this about your characters so as to experience the diversity correctly.

However...  I worry about stating up front that a character is black, South Asian, Hispanic, whatever.  Why would that concern me?  Well, for a couple of reasons.

One is that when you're being introduced to a new character, you are absorbing their primary traits in an attempt to understand who they are.  If one of the main traits I choose to mention is that a character is (say) Vietnamese, then the worry (possibly unfounded) is that the reader will pigeonhole that character as "Asian" above and beyond any other attributes.

In other words, they'll remember that the leads include: "the smart one, the athletic one, the nerd, and the Asian chick."

Yes, I can have a well-rounded character with all sorts of subtleties, but if I have prioritized her ethnicity as a defining feature, will the reader do the same?

Also, I never want to "other" my characters.  That is to say, if I feel the need to state one character is black, but never think I have to point out that the others are white, I have singled out "blackness" as aberrant.  I am presenting white as default and describing any deviation from the assumed norm.  And I never want to do that.

Most of the time, I try to describe one characters whiteness for every instance I talk about another character's non-white color.  To ensure that it is a descriptor applied equally and not to demarcate those people who stand out as non-standard.

What, then, is the solution?  Probably what that Twitter poster said, but I still go back and forth.  I don't want to disrespect either my characters or my readers by having race be any kind of defining aspect of my characters.

Their upbringing (of which culture, and society's response to their ethnicity, will be a part) certainly is a strong influence on who they are.  But the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes ought not to be who they are.  On any level, as far as I am concerned.

I like to use strong and unique names for my characters when I can.  If everyone is "Pete", "Dave", "Sandra", "Jill", then it is all too easy for the reader to forget which bland label belongs to which individual.  If they have stronger, less common, names then it is easier to tell them apart.

Luckily for me, this also helps with the dilemma of introducing a character's ethnicity.  In "Straw Soldiers" two minor characters (Kaz's friends at school) were named "Julia Ng" and "Daisy Rivera".  I hope that any reader knows the ethnicities of these girls without being told.

Similarly, my current work in progress features an extremely minor character named "DeShawn" whose skin color I do not feel needs to be stated.  His personality is not a stereotype, but his name is recognizably African American in the way that "Brian" would not be.

This can't be done for every character who is non-white, of course, but on occasion is does bypass the problem I struggle with.

What do you think?  How problematic is it to single out a character's ethnicity for comment?  And how problematic is it not to do so, and have the reader just assume everyone is white?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Inspiration (Part One)

Compensation is 99% inspiration, or so they say.

(No they don't.)

But what exactly is inspiration?  For me, at least, it is certainly not wholesale lifting from other sources.

Most often, an character's arc, or a fantastical element, in one piece of fiction will lead me - stepping-stone-like - to a somewhat related idea that I flesh out on my own to create something brand new.

Sometimes (very rarely) it will be about stealing an idea someone else had.  But in these cases, it's more like turning a throwaway comment into a full-blown novel.  Like reading an offhand remark about 'a YouTube comment by a man who never existed', and then creating from that an entire story about someone who was erased from reality, but gained a second life as a sentient online footprint.

It's not about stealing.  It's about great works of fiction stirring your imagination to create your own (hopefully very different) art.

For this post, I want to talk about my series of pulp science-fiction e-novellas: "The Star Travels of Dr. Jeremiah Fothering-Smythe".

I've talked before about the origins of this series, but basically I wrote an unsolicited spec for a defunct series of pulp e-novellas set in 1970s North America.  At the time, a paperback collected edition was being mooted, but as the project was put on hold, my story (which was strongly being considered for inclusion in the book) went to limbo.

But the experience prompted me to realize that I could write (and would have fun writing) my own series of pulp adventures, of a similar length.  At the time, I thought I could bang them out one a month at a decent quality (provided I went into the thing with a sufficient number of ideas) and because of my love of Victorian-era pulp SF, I immediately conceived the story of a gentleman of the era finding himself on a journey through outer space, becoming an unlikely hero as he floundered his way through the cosmos to make it back to Earth.

The action-adventure pulp series I had written for was a main inspiration - but only for tone and format.  The content of my novellas would be quite different.

So what inspired me beyond them?  HG Wells, of course, was a main inspiration, and I sought ought some of his books I had not read up to that point, to immerse myself in the right tone.

Also - and quite in opposition to the staid pacing of late 19th Century literature - I was greatly inspired by (and wanted to emulate) the flow, rhythm, and structure of the Flash Gordon serials starring Buster Crabbe.  Not the newspaper strips (which I liked as well) but the cinematic serialized adaptations.

If I could somehow evoke the fun of those serials, with their frequent cliffhangers, while also emulating the style and content of early SF works that I loved, then I would be onto a winner (as far as creating what I intended to - I never expected, nor received, financial success from those books).

My main influence, though, was a little loved book called "A Honeymoon in Space" by George Griffith.  First published in 1901 (the same year my Victorian gentleman set out on his celestial adventure) this book describes a dashing man who rescues his old flame from an unwanted marriage in his newly-invented spacecraft.  Together the two take to the stars to see what wonders the solar system has to offer.

In its light-hearted and adventurous tone, its fascination with bizarre alien life and how such societies would evolve, and its utter lack of concern for real-life science, I found something I wanted to emulate in spirit - though not in content.  Its resonances with the concerns of the novel "The Time Machine" gave me much fuel for the fires of my creative writing.

Throw this all together with my love of Sherlock Holmes, adventure serials, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom books, and with just a whiff of steampunk about the whole thing, and you have a series I was very proud to more or less succeed at producing once a month (for the six months it endured).

If you want to, you can buy the collected e-books for Kindle for $5.99.  "The Star Travels of Dr. Jeremiah Fothering-Smythe" - one of my favorite things I have ever had the pleasure of writing.