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Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

As I’ve been working through the first round of revisions to BLOOD IS THICKER, I’ve also been rereading parts of A CIVIL CAMPAIGN by Lois McMaster Bujold. Not just because it’s my favorite of the Vorkosigan Saga books, though it is. Also because it’s a good model for how a smart man can blow up his own love life–and then fix it again by realizing his own mistake.

That’s one of the things that happens in BLOOD WILL TELL, although obviously in a very different way, and it didn’t come off quite right in the first draft. It was too flat and a bit stereotypical. So, how to fix it. Well, it never hurts to try to pick up pointers from somebody who handled a similar situation extremely well.

I think I’ve made it better. It still may need some tweaking, but that’s what revisions are for.

BTW, I’ve finally built up some momentum in this one. I’ve passed the half-way point in this revision. Yay!

That’s good, because I’m very soon going to have three revision projects going at once:

  1. The ongoing revisions to MAGE STORM as critiques come in.
  2. BLOOD IS THICKER
  3. And the start of the first round of revisions to THE BARD’S GIFT.

And that doesn’t count three (soon to be four) short stories that need some attention.

Well, at least I know I won’t get stuck. I’ll always be able to switch to something else if I do.

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My recent reading–some good, some bad–has made me think more about this. It occurs to me that there are two separate parts of the craft of writing.

One part is unquestionably the writing itself, learning the techniques of making our stories come alive for readers. This encompasses most of the “rules” you’ll run into in books and critiques. Show vs. Tell (and both have their place), dialog tags and beats, avoiding adverbs, sticking to a single point of view at a time. There are whole books written just on these techniques. They’re the mechanics of how to get your story out, but they are not the story.

Of course, we all aspire to write eloquently. But it is possible to write competently and tell a rousing story. Some of these even become best sellers. And it is also possible to write well and not be able to tell a story. All the mastery of technique in the world is wasted without a good story.

Telling a story is also a craft. There are more things to learn, here–foreshadowing, plotting, pacing, characterization, character arcs, and weaving in subplots. And pitfalls to learn to avoid, like deus ex machina endings and withholding. Even a good story can be ruined by clumsy handling. I have, unfortunately, read a couple of those lately.

A really, really good writer has both sets of tools at their disposal–a mastery of the are of telling a story and the techniques to make the story come to life seamlessly. Sometimes that means an invisible narrator, who just keeps out of the way as the story unfolds. Sometimes it means a distinctive voice that draws the reader in. But neither one will work if the story isn’t right in the first place.

Anyway, that’s my opinion.

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Fair warning: today’s post is going to be something of a rant.

I believe firmly that every story should be told with as much skill and passion as the story teller possesses, no matter who the intended audience is. The author disrepects and does a disservice to the readers if this isn’t true. That’s my position and I’m sticking to it.

The reason this comes up is the last two middle grade/young adult books that I’ve read. No, I won’t give the titles here. That’s against my policy on this blog. As my grandmother taught me, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” My only exception to that rule is that I think that sometimes there’s something to be learned by talking and thinking about what doesn’t work–or at least what doesn’t work for me.

So, the two bad habits of today’s topic are deus ex machina endings and withholding.

Deus ex machina: Literally “god from the machine”, this is a reference to ancient Greek plays in which the fallible mortals would royally mess things up for two hours and at the end an actor portraying a god was lowered to the stage by a machine. The “god” then performed a bit of handwavium and set everything right–except, of course, for the characters who had died. 

In more modern stories, this might be accomplished by some new ability, device, or character that was never foreshadowed in the story up to this point. It’s contrived and it’s cheating. It often violates the internal logic of the story and tests the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.

Worse, it’s unsatisfactory.  In general, stories are much more satisfying when the ending is earned by the main character through a series of struggles and try/fail cycles. We root for characters that surmount their past failures to win through at the end. We feel cheated when some agency other than the main character steps in and solves the problem. Think about it, would Lord of the Rings have worked if Gandalf magically transported Frodo to the Cracks of Doom? (If you think so, check this out on youtube.) When the solution isn’t the result of the protagonist’s struggle, then what was the whole point of the struggle–or the story for that matter.

Withholding: When a story is told in close limited third person or, even worse, in first person, and the point-of-view character knows something that he or she does not share with the reader, that’s withholding. The character can–and often should–withhold information from other characters. But if the reader is privy to the character’s thoughts and emotions–as they should be in either close limited third person or first person–then it’s a cheat not to let the reader know what the character reasonably should be thinking about.  Just like deus ex machina, withholding is sometimes used to suddenly reveal the solution that’s been there all along. But, it tends to make the reader feel cheated, and justly so. 

Withholding is one of the main reasons that the Sherlock Holmes stories are told from Dr. Watson’s point of view. Holmes often knows the solution to the mystery early on. He’s just trying to prove it. Watson doesn’t know and so it’s not withholding for him not to tell the reader. Also, think about Harry Potter. The reader didn’t know until almost the end of the seventh book which side Snape was really on. But neither did Harry, so we didn’t feel cheated.

Now, I’m not saying that withholding, at least, can’t be used successfully by a master. But that’s the point. It takes a deft hand, almost like a stage magician, to keep the readers’ eyes diverted so they don’t notice the trick. If the author can’t pull that off, they shouldn’t attempt withholding.

Sometines, I wonder if authors who try to use these tricks think it’s okay because they got the reader to read all the way–or nearly all the way–to the end. That misses the point. They’re not–or they shouldn’t be–trying just to sell this book. They should be trying to make the reader want to read the next one and the next. And, for me at least, they fail completely. If I lose faith in your ability as a story teller, I’m not likely to pick up the next book.

That’s the lesson I’m taking away from two less-than-stellar reading experiences.

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First, another little announcement. I’ve been playing around with creating a book trailer. This is my effort so far.

Now, I’ve been thinking about point of view and tense lately, largely because of my reading. First person present tense is really big right now, especially in young adult books. Mostly, I think this is because of THE HUNGER GAMES, where it actually works very well. In fact, THE HUNGER GAMES is the only book I can think of in which first person present tense didn’t bother me.  

The book I’m currently reading is written this way. Actually, I think it always was in first person, but I suspect the present tense was a later revision. I say this because I’ve caught a couple of places where the verbs are still past tense, like they got missed in the revision. Sadly, it’s not the only place where the text could have used a thorough copy editor.

I have actually written a couple of short stories in first person: “Heart of Oak” and “Becoming Lioness”. The first because the story really did demand to be that intimate and the second because I just started “hearing” the voice of the story that way.

I think the key to successful use of first person is a closeness to a single character. It has to be intimate, because you’re asking the reader to be the character. It’s much more than just changing pronouns and verb conjugations.

Not every story can or should be told in first person. For one thing, it can get downright confusing if you have two or more point of view characters, all written in first person. I’ve read a couple of stories like that. If the chapter headings hadn’t told me who “I” was at any given moment, I’d have been completely lost.

Another reason to avoid first person is because it is–or should be–impossible to withhold information known to the character from the reader. Conversely, it’s also impossible to let the reader know anything that the first person character doesn’t know. Sometimes, you want to do this so the reader can (silently) shout “Don’t open that door!” or something similar. And it can be darn tricky to make a heroic first-person character not come off as arrogant or a braggart. Also, in those cases where a protagonist is indecisive or not proactive (which I hate anyway), first person isn’t going to make the reader feel any more motivated to continue the story than the main character is. Sometimes, too, you just do need a little more narrative distance from the main character.

Present tense is a trickier question for me. I confess, I just don’t really like it. The only time it hasn’t bothered me, even a little, was in THE HUNGER GAMES. Part of that, of course, is that it was handled truly skilfully there. Skill and mastery of the craft will always make a difference. (Something I think debut authors do well to bear in mind.)

But that’s not all of it. Present tense worked so well in THE HUNGER GAMES, I think, because Katniss was rarely thinking very far ahead or, after the first couple of chapters, very much about the past. She was living in and just trying to survive the moment. And so present tense worked.

This particular young adult novel that I’m reading now almost fits into that same mold, at least in large sections. Just not quite enough to really pull it off. Or maybe it’s the difference between a veteran and a debut author.

Decisions of point of view and tense shouldn’t be taken lightly or leaped into just because it’s the latest thing. Those choices should only be made because they serve the story best, in my opinion.

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Mom

Well, it’s Mother’s Day and the same people that took care of Dad are coming out tomorrow to assess Mom for hospice care, so it seems like a good day to look back.

This is Mom when she was young. Several years before I was born, so I don’t actually remember her this way.

 

 

 

 

This is Mom and Dad together, again several years before I came along.

If you read any of my stories (hint: BLOOD WILL TELL) and encounter a petite fireball for a female character, well, now you know where that inspiration came from.

Mom, Dad, and me at their 50th wedding anniversary. (Disclaimer: this should not be considered anything close to a current photo of me, either.)

 

This is Mom with a therapy dog that used to visit the Salvation Army Adult Day Care Mom attended for years. Unfortunately, the ADC closed a year ago. I give them and the stimulation they provided a lot of credit for the long plateau Mom had in the progression of her Alzheimer’s disease.

 

I could add a more recent picture, but it only gets more depressing from there. This disease steals so much. It’s twelve years now since her diagnosis. Sometimes it’s hard to remember the energetic lady who always seemed to be ready to take on the world. The things she taught–and sometimes tried unsuccessfully to teach–me will always be with me, no matter what. She encouraged me to read and to write, although I didn’t really get serious about that until it was too late for her to understand much about it.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Love you.

 

 

 

 

 

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Blogging a touch early because tomorrow morning is going to be too busy.

Over the last couple of years I’ve read several stories that just didn’t work for me. I want to be clear: this isn’t a judgment of whether these stories are good or not, just whether they’re the kind of story I like to read.

Of those that come immediately to mind–and no, I’m not going to name names or titles–two are by well-established and well-loved authors and one is a debut novel.

The thing all these books have in common and that makes them not work for me is a relatively inactive protagonist. It’s an inactive female protagonist in each case, but the fact is that I can’t think of a novel with an inactive male protagonist. I don’t really think that’s coincidence. These stories make me absolutely crazy.

Now, what I mean by an inactive protagonist is that this character doesn’t seem to be taking the lead in trying to solve the problem of the story, whatever it is. For one reason or another, this putative protagonist isn’t the real hero of the story. And that bugs me. It bugs me so much that it ruins the whole story for me. It bothers me even more when the story is aimed at a YA audience.

The one I’ll talk about was a very famous fantasy trilogy. Some of you may even guess which one it was. There’s no doubt the author is one of the premier fantasy writers of our time. The story was just wrong for me.

The first book was great, with a really kick-ass female protagonist. The second book was very hard for me to finish, in large part because that female character placed herself behind a much less capable male character (and love interest). They were actually, potentially, a very good pair–each providing strengths the other lacked. He was the thinker, she was the fighter. Cool!

However the male character’s agenda was allowed to overwhelm the female protagonist’s. Even though she knew there was something she should be doing, she hung back, letting the male character take the lead. I had to force my way through that book, telling myself that the second book in a trilogy is often the worst. The third book would be better, I was sure, because I had liked the first so much.

At the end of that second book, the male character was magically given the same abilities that the female had. Not only that, he was stronger. Ugh! And once again in the third book, the female protagonist sublimated her goals to his. To me, they were essentially fiddling while their world burned. I couldn’t even finish this book because I frankly just didn’t care what happened to these characters anymore.

The other books I referenced above have similar patterns. Female characters waiting for some guy to come along and make a plan and lead the problem solving. I don’t care if the protagonist has to enlist allies. That’s fine. I don’t even care if the allies turn out to have special skills that place them in leadership positions during part of the story. I do very definitely mind when the protagonist is not the one trying to solve the problem of the story. Oddly, that only seems to happen with female protagonists, which really burns me.

I want my protagonists to be active in trying to solve the problem. Now you know what kind of story you won’t be getting from me.

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 . . . And won’t let go.

At last count, I had about 25 books in my To-Read pile. But for some reason earlier this month I just couldn’t get into either of the ones I’d picked up. I’m likely to drop one and come back to the other later. What did I do? Did I pick up another book from that teetering stack? No, I didn’t.

I went back to a tried and true story I’ve read at least twice before. THE SHARING KNIFE series–BEGUILEMENT, LEGACY, PASSAGE, and HORIZON–by Lois McMaster Bujold. I know exactly how this story is going to go and how it’s going to end, and I am as caught up in it as if I were reading it for the first time. I can’t even think about picking up another book. I’m finding extra time to read.

That is the kind of story I aspire to write. So, I have to spend a little time trying to figure out exactly what it is that makes this story so enthralling.

In large part, it’s the characters. Lois McMaster Bujold does the redemption of damaged characters better than any other writer I can think of. Characters who start out half-dead inside, then find a reason to fight to live, and then nearly lose it again. That is a riveting story.

But it’s more than that, of course. It’s how alive those characters feel. With virtues and flaws and dark places they don’t want to probe too deeply.

It’s the way the setting is drawn on my imagination. It doesn’t hurt that THE SHARING KNIFE is in a non-standard fantasy setting. Not some parallel medieval setting for this one. This is much more like–very much like–the Mississipi River Valley during its early settlement.

It helps that in addition to the individual trials of the characters, there are also two cultures in conflict. And nasty monsters–some human, some definitely not–that have to be vanquished along the way.

And, of course, it’s all tied together with her writing style that just eases me into that world with no bumps or hitches along the way.

But really, I think it’s the characters.

There’ve been a few other stories that grabbed me this way. Stories that often made me keep thinking about those characters long after I’d finished the book(s).

Back to reading. And thinking.

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Sorry. I got busy writing again and almost forgot to blog. I’m not officially doing NaNoWriMo, but I’ve written over 3200 words in the last two days anyway. Love it when the story flows.

So, October’s reading list:

LINGER and FOREVER by Maggie Stiefvater:

I have two kinds of comments about these–as a reader and as a writer. 

As a reader, I found the addition of two more point of view characters (all written in first person) distracting. Two first-person points of view in SHIVER took some getting used to. But once I’d adjusted, there was a certain intimacy to it. Adding two more first-person point of view characters in LINGER and FOREVER is not twice as confusing. It was exponentially more confusing. It also diffused that intimacy of the two points of view. I’m not sure the subplot of Cole and Isabel added enough to make up for that. You really do have to check the subheading for each chapter to find out who “I” is in this one.

 I bought the kindle edition of FOREVER, even though I don’t have a kindle and had to read it on my PC because that way at least I could read it in black and white. I was bothered by the blue ink in SHIVER and the green ink in LINGER. I shuddered to think of reading a whole novel in the dried-blood color of the cover of FOREVER.

Nevertheless, there’s something about these stories. You know how I can tell? Because after I finish reading them, my imagination runs on for a while, dreaming up what happens to these characters next. That doesn’t happen with every story I read.

As a writer, the four first-person characters drew my eye to something else. They all sounded pretty much alike. That wasn’t too noticeable with just two kids who’d both grown up in a little backwoods Minnesota town. Add in a slightly older boy who grew up in New York and is a genuine rock star and a slightly younger girl who came from San Diego and suddenly the fact that they all have virtually identical voices makes a lot less sense. That wouldn’t have been nearly as noticeable if they’d been written in third person.

Still, the trilogy is a good story. And, unlike many trilogies I’ve read recently, the second book, LINGER, actually does have a plot and a conflict all its own that is resolved in that book. It’s not just a bridge between Book One and Book Two. Bravo for that.

MIRROR DANCE by Lois McMaster Bujold:

If you’ve read this blog at all, you know how I feel about just about anything written by Lois McMaster Bujold. I love almost everything I’ve ever read of hers.

This one certainly doesn’t disappoint. The story of Miles Vorkosigan and his clone brother, Mark, who was created for a plot to assasinate Miles’s (their) father. Two young men who are genetically identical, yet because of the differences in their upbringing, very different. MIRROR DANCE is much more Mark’s story than Miles’s, but there’s still plenty of Miles’s signature chaos. Really good story, as usual.

WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maas:

I know, I know. I should have gotten around to this one a lot earlier. Fiction is so much more fun to read. This one slowed down the reading for the month because I had to stop and think about it often. That’s probably a good thing, though. There area a lot of good tips in there, whatever genre you’re writing. Highly recommend.

I was busy with critiques, and then reading FOREVER on the PC in the evenings, so I didn’t get much research done for my alternate history.

Next up:

I’m already reading SNUFF by Terry Pratchett, because sometimes you just have to stop being serious and have a belly laugh. I also started book 5 of THE RANGER’S APPRENTICE series (THE SORCEROR OF THE NORTH). And, since Lois McMaster Bujold’s book are coming out in e-book editions, I got her first fantasy, THE SPIRIT RING.

I’ve noticed something. No matter how many books I read, my to-read pile isn’t getting any smaller. Hmm.

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