Science Fiction Names and Approaches to Spelling.

I was reading a fantastic sci-fi book that took place between India and Djibouti. The names, so difficult to pronounce, got me thinking about Kashyyyk. Yes, Kashyyyk, the Wookiee homeworld from Star Wars. Without some tribal knowledge, a casual reader would be lost in the pronunciation of that name, too.

Names are the handle readers cling to as they’re pulled by the characters through the story. Names set the tone of the characters themselves. Plain names, tough-guy names, ironic names, funny names, even no name says something about a character. With sci-fi and fantasy, they speak to the invented cultures as well. But what happens when the names are unpronounceable? How do you spell a whistle? And, as writers, how distinctive do you want the name to be? The problem—when does distinctive become distracting?

People of Earth have developed their own sounds for communication, their own rules,

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Photo by Miriam Espacio on Unsplash

and their own artistic inflections. We’re the same species with the same anatomy around the globe, yet cultures evolved isolated from others to the point where certain sounds are unpronounceable to foreigners.

The written characters of a language relate to the sounds belonging to the cultures that spawned them. But what about spellings for sounds that don’t belong to that culture? New combinations of letters and accent marks help adapt the adopted sounds. I personally like the Cyrillic sound Ж, otherwise written in my language as Zhe.

Once, some friends asked me to read a section of a Vietnamese newspaper. Vietnamese uses English letters so it appears generally familiar, but the language pays way more attention to vowels, whereas English flexes the tongue on consonants. Those guys had a good laugh. Turns out what I’d read and struggled to pronounce wasn’t even close because I didn’t comprehend the nuances of the accent marks over, under and around every vowel.

Following the book from India to Djibouti, the place names and foodstuffs were difficult to read. I simply didn’t have a linguistic model to adequately contrive a sound. With science fiction and fancy pronunciations don’t fully matter. People form their own sounds and move on, always pronouncing the thing the way they initially described.

Now from Djibouti to Kashyyyk. Why the hell is Kashyyyk spelled with three Ys? It’s an alien planet and we can reasonably assume if they once belonged to the Galactic Republic then the Republic would call the Wookiee homeworld what the Wookiees wanted. It’s also safe to assume the English translation would be an approximation using recognizable letter combinations to describe what the Wookiees were saying. So why would the original writers use yyy to represent the long e sound where ee would work perfectly? Even an ei, as in sheik. Or an ique as in mystique. The triple y makes no sense.

Except…

The author wanted to illustrate the alienness of the name, make it totally strange and instantly recognizable by the reader as something other. So why not invent letters to make it a proper alien language.

Because none of those invented letters would translate to English. There are plenty of examples of invented languages all of which follow established conventions. Klingon. Dothraki. Esperanto.

You’ve read this far, what kind of mental sounds would you assume if I suddenly wrote my name as ベンジャミン? Dual Japanese and English speakers would get it, but otherwise, without any clue to form a mental sound, it’s a distraction that would disrupt the flow of the reading process every time the name came up. It’s just my name, Benjamin, as translated by Google. But see how recognizable letters are needed to form familiar sounds? Bizarre spellings don’t really add to the alienness of a name, but crazy spellings do distract from the story. Besides, the alienness of any given character or object should be clear from the context. Who’s going to say Kasheek spelled this way isn’t alien? The sounds are the same and it enjoys the privilege of conforming to non-distracting conventions of English.

With that can I take a moment to point out that no Wookiee with a line in a movie or holiday special ever vocalized syllables that came close to sounding like Kashyyyk. Did Chewbacca ever lead anyone to believe he could say his own name? No! The Wookiees only howled and growled. The names of their characters and planet should’ve reflected their typical sounds. Grerrlrrlrrlrr! Still, you’d need the rolling r from Spanish to pronounce this. A sound that English just hasn’t mastered, yet.

Writing is a personal expression, one derived from the soul. Honestly, all languages need to evolve, otherwise, they become stagnant and unsupportive. If they evolve too fast, however, they lose the meaning inherent in the sounds described by squiggly characters. Besides, I don’t like scolds telling people how to express themselves. But I also feel a sense of responsibility in conveying my meanings clearly and unobtrusively. And so I try to keep my sci-fi names simple, though I do tend to throw in a zhe now and again.

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Anonymous Book Review 12: The first book I quit.

I’ve quit my first book. That’s right, quit it. Put it down and moved on. I’m glad I didn’t list it on Goodreads. I don’t want to face scorn from the fanatical community who loves this book and the seemingly endless sequels. See, this book is legend. It’s sacrosanct. Hallowed text. My bookstore lady guaranteed (in spirit, not refunds) that I would love it.

But I didn’t. And I pissed-off a friend.

Okay. A few things took me out of the story. First was the POV. Third person omniscient. It was done well. I always knew who thought what, but I could never make a connection with a single character. This book is some fifty years old, written in an earlier time, before hyper-critical (ahem) MFAs ruined literature. (Ahem.) I needed something different than the style of the bygone time.

Second, the pace had me yawning. This anonymous book is big. The author took his time developing the characters and

Question: What does the author and lice have in common? Answer: They both hop between heads.

Question: What does the author and lice have in common?
Answer: They both hop between heads.

plot. Fifty pages, ten percent of the book, not enough to adequately judge the rest of the story, but it was all politics. Tedious politics, not fun or scary or spellbinding. Page over page of speculation and preparation. MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN!!!

Sorry. I lost my comportment.

Where was I…

Yes, third, which had more to do with my expectations than the book itself, was that the plot read like a fantasy novel. I love a good fantasy novel when I’m in the mood for one, but this genre defining sci-fi book started with a feudal hierarchy where a sorceress administered a magic test to see if the main character is “The Chosen One,” or some such. Then this lesser noble family is supposed to—

I’ll stop there to preserve a thread of anonymity.

Yeah, I wasn’t ready for that kind of a book.

From a writer’s perspective the POV stood out most. In third person omniscient justification for choices come abruptly, or the back story (as little as a sentence or two) was fed into spots at exactly the right time. The effect was removing tension from the scene. When two people are glaring at each other, daring the other to flinch, I don’t want an explanation why character bad-guy made her choice, then hopping into good-guy’s head to listen to her reasoning. Set up the conflict with solid, distinct POVs and let the consequences follow smoothly.

Speaking of consequences—there’s my pissed-off friend. I had recently critiqued his novel and I think I now know the problem. His story was really good, but the POV and pacing were my biggest issues, issues my writer friend was unreasonably skeptical to accept. It is, after all, only my opinion, but my critique was totally wrong.

I had known that this anonymous book and its many sequels was one of his all-time favorites. Of course, it’s everybody’s favorite, right? But when I read this first part everything made sense. My friend’s writing style matched the style of this book. My critique wasn’t mere comments on his hard work, but comments inadvertently against his favorite fiction, against his childhood fantasies.

Damn. Well, what’s said is said.

So I paid retail price for the massive paperback. I own it and expect someday to pick it up again, but that probably won’t be for a while.

Have you ever disliked and disregarded a book that was supposed to be spectacular? Share your story because you’re not alone.

Oh, and one last thing. Thank you MFAs for insisting on distinct POVs. Readers do come closer to main characters this way. Maybe you haven’t ruined literature after all.

A Moment of Appreciation

This will be a short post, but I wanted to acknowledge a moment I appreciated enough to write about. This wasn’t a huge gesture, definitely meaningless to the other person, but I walked away from it with the widest grin.

As a previous post declared, I’ve written a few pieces of fan fiction recently. They also happen to be some of my best stuff, material I’m proud came from my hand. And the logic goes that sooner or later I’ll have to market my writing, so I decided to take a soft approach with this fan fiction and printed ten business cards at home. Nothing special, a name, some addresses and one small sentence of a pitch.

Weary from a long day at Wondercon pushing through crowds, ready to go home, an announcement said the floor would close in half an hour. I had held onto my cards all day, but I needed to pass them out. After all, I didn’t make them to keep. And I’d never find a larger gathering of potential fans. Though I’ve never solicited my writing before, either.

But I had to do this. Time was running out and I’d regret it if I didn’t.

Lo and behold, a man wearing a symbol of my fandom on his shirt appeared. I asked and he accepted a card. Then I spotted another shirt with another symbol from the fandom and he begrudgingly took a card. Two iSnake Eyes Tat 2n a row. Easy. I’d seen people with both symbols actually tattooed on their forearms. The fans were out there.

Bolstered by two quick finds, I go hunting, but I’m not finding anyone else and time was running out.

Until….

A cosplayer dressed as one of the most iconic characters was leaning against a table, bored as his girlfriend played a video game demo.

Really? Can I pass this guy a card? Obviously he’s a fan. Does he have pockets? Of course. What self-respecting ninja commando in combat fatigues with web gear doesn’t have an extra pocket or pouch?

I approached, but somebody else tapped him. The cosplayer drew a sword and pistol, posed for a few pics then slouched against the table again.

Okay. My turn.

I call out, complimented the costume. He goes to draw his sword and pistol, but I beat him to it with a card. I asked if I could leave one with him. He took the card a little standoffishly, held it in two hands and angled his head for a view through his mask. After a moment reading the pitch, he stood straight and bobbed his head several times without speaking in a motion I took as genuinely positive. I thanked him and went about my hunt grinning, thinking, Yeah! I just gave my business card to Snake Eyes.

Anonymous Book Review 23: Keeping it simple is Stupidly Hard.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this book, but I guess that’s how I usually feel about twist endings. Really didn’t see that one coming. The ending wrapped up the interesting narrative style perfectly, threw me back in my seat and made me say out loud, “Holy shit!”

The five star rating system is way too limited to adequately rate a novel like this.

The author wrote one of the greatest opening chapters that I’ve read in a long time. There’s instantly danger, intrigue and a secret that takes three hundred pages to resolve. I had some doubts about this book, but a book club I thoroughly respect selected this title so I picked it up not knowing what to expect.

That first chapter did not disappoint.

Then a second POV took over. A slower tale that became a little uncomfortable for me to read. This second POV actually had better characters, but it was written as a spoken story that almost crossed from a first-person perspective into the second-person. And this style carried through for three hundred pages as well.

Both of these perspectives, well written on their own, came together in an unexpected way through a manipulation of time. It wasn’t as linear as I’d thought, though I might’ve gotten it if I’d seen the style before. But I haven’t and that’s a major factor in what made this novel entertaining.

The overall structure was a treat, the character voices were strong, the ending satisfying, but the two things that stood out most, the aspects I’d like to take away and incorporate into my own writing is first simplicity. Not dumbed down, but written in a way that was clear and concise. The second is the attention to detail. I’m speaking in an overall sense which on a smaller scale occasionally detracted from the story.

Simple and concise. Conserving words, keeping the point of each sentence as the focus and using just enough flourish to convey the message naturally. Never were there long descriptions of people, places or things. Gone were the purple prose and flowery language that tend to dull a mind. This author kept her story front and center. And that’s

what kept my attention during the soggy middle. The story got slow, most do at some point, but the direct sentences and limited description kept the story moving without letting my mind drift on extraneous details. The scenes, being what they were, would’ve bogged down and bored me to death had there been any language not focused on the story alone.

Every format has its art. Words are the necessary evil in fiction. Too few and the story is boring. Too many and the adventure becomes muddled. Microwave instructions are clear and concise, but I don’t want to read those.

It’s the Goldilocks—

Yeah, yeah, yeah, thank you mister obvious.

Okay, the author found the sweet spot, but how did she convey enough information to set scenes? Especially in India and East Africa, places as exotic as sci-fi realms to me. This author was very specific. She used specific names for cities, streets, foods and languages.

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Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

I may not know what streets actually feel like, but the few details included formed an image in my head of streets I know with an added layer if images I’ve seen on television.

Thank you, Anthony Bourdain.

What she couldn’t convey quickly with a name and a few words she dialed in with metaphors and similes. She used similes to generate a visual representation instead of slogging through an itemized description of another street or food. Personally, I think metaphors and similes are dynamite. Like, they do a lot of work when they go off properly, but explode in your face when they don’t. A few didn’t land, but overall they worked fantastically in keeping the description to a minimum while setting a mental image.

Where this story didn’t work for me was in the vast numbers of names. Near future sci-fi in a non-Western setting. Great! Introduction to a complicated slice of my own world and history that I’m completely unaware of? Awesome! A thousand names with spellings more difficult to pronounce than any sci-fi I’ve ever read? Bummer. Okay, the author has traveled extensively and she has close friends residing in these slices of the world. I know this because she basically beat me over the head for three hundred and twenty pages with names that I simply don’t have the linguistic model for which to contrive a functional sound. At least with fantastic sci-fi, the eccentric names and words don’t have mispronunciations capable of offending entire populations.

This is where the attention to details became too complicated. People, places, foods, so many were so difficult to pronounce and in the case of foods, I have no idea what kind of food is being consumed. Great that she’s eaten delicious foods and I’m sure these foods resonated with her beta readers, but for me they were just an endless distraction. I had no context, nor did I want any because all but one, a pastry, had no bearing on the story. I suppose in the larger scope of a spoken tale the teller would recount minute details like food, but I thought much of it could’ve been dropped without loss of feeling in the story.

Within the plethora of names, the main character herself changed several times. A nice nickname for a difficult first name and an alias. Not hard to remember, but added to everything else, those became tiresome. As the stories came together, the only name I stayed familiar with then became the original character. But I was led to believe that that name was somebody else, somebody real who then wasn’t, which almost nullified an entire storyline with the end reveal.

I think this, too, can form an important lesson for writers, particularly those in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, that too many names distract from the story. They stunt the flow and

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Photo by Pasquale Vitiello on Magdeleine.co

make the reader sound out and wonder if their pronunciation is accurate. And crazier spellings don’t add to the story as much as constitute an abuse of language.

This book took me on a cerebral adventure, one with guilt-ridden hallucinations from a close perspective. The story circled back to a point it had never left. The slowness, the intimacy, the isolation of the characters gave me the impression that there’d be some literary meaning, some form of understanding and personal growth at the end. Imagine my relief when all the characters turned out to be murderous monsters.

Phew. Narrowly dodged a moral lesson.

The writerly lesson, however, is invaluable. It showed me a style I’ve been trying to master. It’s given me examples to elevate a clear and concise format by sprinkling in details and similes that’ll raise microwave instructions to a level of art. It’s also shown me how too much of a good thing saps emphasis from the devise that delivered the goodness. I ended up giving this book three stars, but the limitations of the rating feels like a crime against literature, yet a higher rating would disregard what I consider major detractions. I wouldn’t place this book on a must-read shelf for everyone, but I will enthusiastically recommend this book to people I’d consider the right audience.

Now to start cutting words.

Greatness from an Outline: Anonymous Book Review 22—A quick look at plotting complex story arcs and subtext in fiction writing.

I can’t say that I’ve ever written a book review for the categorical best of any genre. That just changed. After reading this graphic novel again, even after watching the movie, I’m more impressed now at the attention to detail than at any time before.

Thought I was pretty good at outlining.

I’m having doubts.

I’m a writer. Like all writers I enjoy outlining, but I also enjoy free writing, too. Nothing wrong with a pantser style when we’ve got to get a story out of us. Reading this book showed me that when working toward perfection a solid outline becomes the GPS.

The success of this story comes on the back of sixty years entrenched clichés, concepts artistic communities had been talking about, and a world in real life wracked by aibiizmdv0k8mhcjuebvexistential tension. The author had a lot to work with. So like a drunken trust-fund brat pissing away a hard-earned family fortune, this author exhausted the collected cultural capitol in a single twelve issue collection. Instead of blurry nights, fast women and fiery car crashes though, he blew his inheritance on a nihilistic monolith that buried in a shallow grave the naïve superhero tropes humanity had grown accustomed.

Whoa, sounds like someone had a big bowl of metaphorios this morning.

Yes. Yes I did.

There hasn’t been a successful sequel, nor can I imagine one. The characters, the social commentary, the conclusion belong to an era. It exposed the clichés, killed them and left only sour irony for future artists.

Until a new commentary evolves.

It all started innocently enough. After having problems personifying a main character in my novel project, I turned to the graphic novel as a case study on archetypal super heroes that played with their strengths and weaknesses.

Yes, I went into it to analyze characterization, instead I’ve picked up a thorough lesson on the potential of organization, on outlining, on plotting.

It’s a graphic novel. Images are as important to the story telling as the dialog and in this one just as technically perfect. There are clues from the very first panels as to how the story will bend. Details that draw you back to the beginning once you’ve reached the finale. Innocuous scenery—end table trinkets, by-standers, litter blowing on the motionless breeze—telling a deeper story than the words alone. To us writers this is the mysterious and alluring art of subtext, a facet of literature that pushes good stories into great tales.

But these effects didn’t come by accident. They were planned and plotted before the first words were lettered. A specific, detailed outline is especially important when working with a partner, particularly since a graphic artist needs time to interpret the story, then produce the visual standards, even if the artist is a certified genius in his own right. Which this guy is. Novels take between six months and a million lifetimes to finish and in that interval important details are, umm, occasionally overlooked. If there’s a lesson to take from this, it’s that a complete and layered outline only multiplies the quality of your work.

I once sat in a crowd absorbed in an hour long speech by the famous sci-fi author, David Brin. He was funny and engaging and spoke in that cryptic language professionally known as nerd. I loved it. In his speech he suggested that all us aspiring writers should begin our fiction careers by penning a murder mystery. His point was that writers would be forced, by the very nature of the genre, to pay close attention to the details, and that the their job was to plant clues in such a way that the reader is dropkicked by the realization that the evidence was in front of them the entire time. All while stretching out the secret for the length of the novel. Solid advice, but I’m not interested in murder mysteries right now and really don’t want to commit to a novel simply for an exercise. Too much work.

Well, this graphic novel is a murder mystery. It starts as a violent and bloody whodunnit. The one person concerned starts tying clues together. The people he comes across describe him and feed in doubt to the course he’s investigating. Alternate history and character back-story knit together, each piece connects to other characters revealing their personalities through the perceptions of the people around them. This subtlety builds a pattern throughout the novel that becomes natural and even succeeds in the nuanced justification for the surprise villain’s opportunity to eliminate his greatest threat.

This is pure showing, no telling. Sure, easy with a comic book, you say. Valid argument, but there’s so much more than that.

At one point one hero narrates his ennui in past, present and future tense. It’s a little confusing at first, though the graphics help to set the context. After a quick re-read the brilliance of the passage sank in. The story wasn’t what had happened in the past, present, or future, but how the elements of those episodes led the character toward his current state. Beyond that, the significance of those episodes led the reader to understand the character’s condition without saying it explicitly.

All the characters are plays on well worn superhero tropes. The brooding detective, the superman, the wonder woman, the rich idealist gadget man, the world’s smartest, and the comic relief. Then these recognizable tropes were turned on their heads and given normal human failings.

So what? Every writer is trying to flip a trope. It’s why there are so many Alice in Wonderland stories right now.

True, but it wasn’t the failings alone so much as the way their normal faults made the superheroes pathetic on the inside. These faults drove tension in the story as the reader came to know the conflicting motivations of the characters.

Within the novel there’s a parallel comic book story. A horrible tale told in the background of a background scene. One character acts as narrator to the overall status of the world while the secondary comic book tale works as an allegory for the mysterious villain’s descent into madness. At first I wasn’t sure this part was needed. Then I put the clues together. Dreadful acts for noble purposes still make monsters.

The details in this book were so diverse that I almost needed my own outline to follow it. Almost. The author kept the detail threads relevant throughout. At no point was I fully lost trying to piece an aspect of the story together that wasn’t purposely obscured. I say purposely because there are small elements set between big details and repeated often enough to matter, yet hidden by seemingly greater things.

Keeping the murder mystery progressing, maintaining the parallel story line, edging in the back-story and narrating in three tense, plus delving into the psychological states and motivations for a vast number of characters while holding them within the narrow limitations of their particular superhero stereotypes could not have been accomplished by writing straight from imagination. There must’ve been massive amounts of time devoted to every aspect. Outlined story development, integrating character arcs, researching many, many topics from physics to psychology to ornithology. There must’ve been years worth of meetings to generate the perfect graphics that fully portrayed the themes, tones and context of the scenes. Drawn before the digital age, there must’ve also been stacks, mounds, mountains of discarded story board drawings.

I personally appreciate outlines. For me they’re where nebulous ideas and kernels of characters gain validity. I also love free writing as stories flow from the ether of my mind. But it’s when I contemplate the completeness of this novel, the cover-to-cover perfection in the art of storytelling that, for me, outlines becomes indisputably necessary. The richness, the complexity, the webs of entangled histories and character arcs have launched this graphic novel into the strata of best.

tl/dr. The takeaway.

I couldn’t find a decent outlining map online. Not one that wasn’t uselessly cartoonish. But here’s my hot take. Outline the overall plot. I like to use this beat sheet for a point A to point B plot-line. I then annotate the main or POV character’s growth points. The points in the story when they learn something in the sub-plot that moves their character business-planning-653x339arc, which then pushes the plot toward conclusion. Within this framework the theme of the story can develop. You can see how the characters and plots work together. It’s also where you can plant meaningful details that tell more to the reader than the words on the page. In essence with an adequate story outline, with the important character arc points layered over and a fair idea of the story’s theme you can plan the subtext messages.

The available graphs and charts and spread sheets didn’t help me much, mostly because each is so static. What feels right to me is a blend of approaches. A living outline that molds and adapts to the work in progress. I don’t think a static approach to outlining would’ve worked for this novel. Perhaps I’m projecting, but the turns and twists, the attention to detail, the symbolism justified by dialog contrived by the story arc must’ve been flexible enough to incorporate new ideas, place clues and illustrate motivations long before the first draft was written.

People may disagree with this claim of best and I’m okay with that. It’s the point of my book review to look at and study an aspect of this novel that stood out to me. The elements I recognize as useful writing tools to guide my art toward perfection. I could talk about the great story, the impeccable graphics, the enormous concepts, but none of those alone spoke to the organization of details that ushered this novel to greatness. It’s in the plotting that these elements came together and not only pushed the bounds of the genre, but shoved them to the ground and kicked dirt in their faces.

I’ve read a few Hugo Award winners, they’re always brilliant. This book, however, changed what I think in writing a novel. It showed me the work that goes into details. How specific details reveal characters, how characters shape events and how those events arrive at conclusions. I’ll wait patiently for the next best ever to evolve. When new clichés develop over time. When author and artist arrive at the perfect moment to create a new and substantial commentary. But I’m sure this new best will have one thing in common with the old best. An intricate and living outline.

So continues the debate of plotters versus pantsers. Please, tell me you thoughts on either style and why that style works for you.

Anonymous Book Review 21

This book sneaked up on me like a cheetah in the tall grass of low expectations, attacking from my blind side as I drank from the stagnant waters of structural homogeneity. As an entertainment piece this book was not my cup of tea—character driven romance—though I found in it qualities that amazed me. I’ve heard talk of the author coming from cheetah 1nowhere, that he wasn’t on anyone’s radar, then surprised the sci-fi/fantasy community with good writing and fresh perspectives. I now understand their point.

This book didn’t follow the rules, yet it was written in a clear manner with restraint and nuance. And in many senses that’s what I liked best about it.

The story was set in a fantasy world bayou with science and magic all around. But it wasn’t trapped in a steamy jungle. The world was broad and far reaching. The bayou was a place, not a character. There was no romantic thread to the fetid swamp that made anyone contemplate life or seek inner truths. It was just a place. To us writers, grounding.

Totally character driven without too much of a plot to speak of, not until the final few pages did the theme of the book resonate. It stayed with the main character, never deviating from his perspective, yet stayed just far enough away to pick up on other characters’ feelings, almost omnisciently. Almost. There was the nuance.

I wanted so much more of the world. Soldiers and royal courts, mystical places and madness educing prophetess’s. The guy walked around with a pet cheetah that he could talk to! But none of that really played into the story other than setting up obstacles for the main characters’ love. Which is as it should have been, but still…. I guess it’s better to leave the audience wanting more instead of less.

The dialog sounded perfectly fantasy, however, a few places one character slipped into a dialect from the American deep south. A few word choices helped generate an idea of a person that exists in modern day. These were the only instances where the author allowed outside knowledge to draft a character’s image. I can speculate on why this happened, pieces missed in editing, reaching for a desired effect, maybe the dialect is native to the author and otherwise invisible, but it was the inconsistency that bumped me out of the story. I really like the idea of having zero ties to modern culture to draw on, but I could’ve gotten behind the character with identifiable traits, too. Just keep it consistent.

In the end this book broached a delicate topic; given the chance, would you live the life you’ve led, or would you follow your heart’s long-ago denied desire? I think this speaks to us all at some level. Personally, I didn’t care for the character’s choice, but that’s me, not the author, not the book.

Here is where my appreciation for this book comes out.

Exclamation points by the shovel full. Semicolons everywhere. Non-linear story telling. Semicolons, comas, exclamation points, periods and parenthesis all in the same sentence!

Yes, it was odd to see, a little distracting at first, but it helped generate and maintain the narrative voice. There were points of subtle emotional excitement that deserved an exclamation point. There were cascading revelations that earned consecutive exclamation points. I was good with these abuses, though reading in the proper voice cartoon7255took effort toward the end, largely due to the exclamation point’s inherent shortcomings, but also followed the logic of the literary sages concerning their overuse. They lose effect quickly. It’s tough to maintain exclamatory vigilance throughout the course of a book. But the weird punctuation fit the voice.

So this author gets it. He knows how to write on an intuitive level. Like the bastard in my calculus class who had conversations with the teacher instead of madly scribbling reams of notes. At first I was distracted, put off, even, by the punctuation. But the more I read, the more I understood just how good of a writer this author is. It happened slowly as I realized that I knew about the world, the hierarchies, the alliances and the magic system without reading info dumps or exposition. I can look back and see a few places where details were given, but none of it stood out while I was in the story. Everything I needed to know was sifted in where needed and only in amounts required to move the story. I’ve heard people say this millions of times, had an idea of how to approach it, but reading the talent on display gave me a deeper appreciation of the author’s ability.

Tangent: Have you ever sat in a writers group where everyone takes turns blasting the hell out of your writing style? And not in the constructive type of, “Maybe it could be clearer if…” but that, “Go back to fourth grade and learn how to write a sentence, you illiterate dork,” kind of critique? Not a fun place to be, especially when you’ve purposely written that way for effect and you suspect most of the hostility to be coming from places other than a deep abiding concern for a fellow writer. Or worse. A deep biding concern that you don’t write like them.

This book vindicated certain aspects of my style against a lot of mediocre critique. Not comparing me against this writer and not saying all the critique was useless, it wasn’t, but to see a similar style in print reinforced that feeling of trusting myself, even against a chorus of nay.

And I don’t buy the critique perspective of “The Reader.” It’s always only the individual’s opinion. Not a singular predicted experience of all literate people in the entire English reading universe. Speak for yourself, not a hypothetical entity concocted to justify a sense of superiority.

Sorry. Wrong tangent.

Anyhow, I thought the author used his style effectively, putting feelings above grammatical structure. Let the academics have their structure. This is fiction. Fiction transcends structural limitations to deliver satisfaction at levels deeper than a GPA.

Pull it together, man. Get off the tangents.

Okay, okay. Sorry. Back to the review.

I took a writerly lesson from this book. It’s an aspect that led to enjoyment, yet one I couldn’t identify, not until I had inadvertently read an article, a Facebook post really, about specificity. Ha! I can spell it better than I can say it. I related the article to this book as I read and paid attention to the author’s craft of similes. He dialed the similes down from something broad and relatable to narrow and specific. The recognition was reassuring, like the first cool breeze of fall, when the summer-long sweat evaporates and you skin tingles with a subtle chill hinting at a sound night’s sleep through the cricket chirps and jasmine blooms for the first night all season.

This book won’t make it to my read-again pile, but I will definitely read more from this author. I’m sure I’ll be hearing his name for decades to come. He can only get better (with constant editing. See previous post of angry man rant concerning geniuses and editing). The author broke the rules in a way that worked because he perfectly understood the purpose behind the so called rules. He was able to disregard the rules of punctuation and sentence structure because he kept the narrative voice and story clear. I think this is a lesson all of us writers should appreciate; that rules only exist until you understand their purpose.

Exit question: Have you ever loved the writing better than the story itself? Share with us your insights so we all can learn.

Anonymous Book Review 20

What a rough book. I wanted to love this book, I truly did. With a few stylistic changes this would have been my favorite book ever. I’ve also never been angrier at a book. Throwing it at the front door was cathartic. Seeing it the next morning on the floor, cover open, pages splayed and curled, gave me a moment of wicked joy. But it wasn’t the book’s fault for existing. It shouldn’t have had to spend the night tortured in a stress position. Now I feel bad, as if I’d kicked a dog. Stupid book empathy.

This book took me seven months to read.

I hated it about one tenth the way through. I should’ve closed it and set it on top of the only other book I’ve abandoned. Believe me, I thought about quitting hundreds of times, but the author’s a genius.

But nothing. Even geniuses need editors.angry reader

And editors need the courage to tell geniuses to dial it back and write coherent sentences.

At some points this book felt like a slap in the face. A fantastic work you can’t help but admire, yet wishy-washy and pointless in the elements of storytelling. It seemed a celebrity excess to prove the power of celebrity, to show audiences and critics that he could write whatever he wanted. I can appreciate a nihilistic display of force from time to time—take that powers that be—but not when it entangles me and my twenty dollars.

I should’ve listened to my book club friend.

Whoa, that’s a lot of hate. What the hell kept me going?

The concepts…. I’ve been waiting to read the author….

The concepts were amazing. One after another; amusing, intriguing, imaginative. The MacGuffin of this magical mystery was my personal spirit animal, so I leaned toward this book from the title. The author’s powers of description put you there. Right there. In the museum, in the embassy, on the street.

The author writes in a genius-level strata that I never see myself ascending. That said, he needed to tone it down. His descriptions were so long and detailed I got bored. His sentence structure so complicated, I got lost. It’s as if he invented commas. Combine excessive description and complicated sentences and you get pages and pages of annoyed disinterest.

Main character? What main character? Oh, the dope who just followed along, yet accidentally picked the right group. That guy didn’t move the story until the very end and even then it was only in the slightest ways. If anyone was a little smarter, like the magic detectives whose job it was to solve cases like that, than the main character wouldn’t have been needed at all.

The other characters were colorful, vibrant beings. One in particular I wanted the entire book to follow. And thought it would because of POV peculiarities. An amazing character that needed so much more page time. Seriously, this one is among my favorite characters ever. Sadly though, the story didn’t follow her.

The tone of this book was supposed to be humorous, in the vein of Good Omens or Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and just as British. I figured the main character would be a sympathetic simpleton of a foil to contrast the magical world against the identifiable regular world us mortals are familiar with. And all for a chuckle. Not really. The main character remained unamusingly simple and then the humor dried up.

The plot was awesome, though, right?

Yeeesh…

An all consuming apocalypse to thwart, I guess, but the nebulous plot it never really registered with me. All the foreboding cataclysms were bland. So, existence is about to cease without the comfort of a new beginning, as is the case with typical apocalypses (apocalypsi?). Hey, that’s intriguing. A concept with serious stakes I could care about. The signs were there to the characters, but not to me. To me everything seemed normal. Nothing interesting in the way of end-of-world events. Why? Why tease me? Why make something great into something boring? Maybe that was supposed to be the joke. The drunken brawl in front a pub was actually a sign. If so the joke didn’t land.

One issue killed so much of this book for me. New sections would open with finite background details, thoughts and reactions of characters would build the mood, then everything would switch to a POV character for the rest of the chapter. What the hell? That’s not cool. I know the voice of narration had to set up the jokes, explain why things were normal in this magical world so the main character could react to absurdities for the laugh, but for me it didn’t add anything. It actually subtracted.

The narration became so casual that at a couple points it seemed to break the fourth wall. The narration spoke directly to you (me), the reader. It tip-toed into second person. But only in a couple places out of five hundred pages. Given the rest of the story’s style these breaches stood out and bugged me. It wasn’t consistent like Hitchhikers Guide. He’s a freakin’ genius. If I do that any editor, agent, or publisher will throw me out the door. They’ll confiscate my pencils and fire me from writing for life.

The conclusion is winding up. The pace is moving, the main character is finally doing something. Everything is coming together, things are magical and cool and now I’m moderately invested. The second bad guy and the one I was led to believe was the antagonist (the first one didn’t count) is at the threshold of winning. This should be fantastic. How is the hero going to get out of this and save the day?

Through the power of realization. The bad guy had to use mythical henchmen and a lovelorn mage, then steal and resurrect a pickled god. The good guy just remembered his occupation and somehow, across a paragraph of self awareness, rewrote, edited, and saved the world. But then, through a line of logic and assumption I couldn’t follow, he alone knew where the real bad guy was and gets there just in time to… distract the villain. Then miraculously this other thing happens, of which he had no control, to really save the day. And there they go, happily ever after.

Yes, the clues were there. I picked up half way through that this good guy would be the real bad guy, which happened, but he wasn’t connected to the other two. They were coincidental red herrings. I like following an investigation where ever it leads, but it didn’t work for me in this book because the plot was ill-defined. One third devoted to a bad guy, the rest devoted to another bad guy, the end is actually a third bad guy motivated by cliché resentments against religion that had nothing to do with anything else.

Now the part that felt like a slap in the face. It’s always been a pet peeve of mine when authors used technical writing terms as description. Writers are supposed to be invisible in their works and so, too, should the writing techniques. A really cool character was punched in the face gifdescribed as ex dues machina. I was thinking it and then I was told it. Hmm. Okay, moving on. There was a very heavy emphasis on Star Trek, you know, because this was the author’s foray into sci-fi/fantasy, which I’m not entirely against, but it was used to fill in science fictiony details instead of explaining. The references justified a significant portion of the book. Kind of fun, okay, quirky, all right, but for me and a few other committed sci-fi fans, meh. Then, at the end, in the summation of events, the narrator described the entire plot as an ambiguous apocalypse. He called his own story ambiguous! He said, in a single word, what my problem was the entire time. As if the author had awesome characters and ideas, then improvised a reason for them to exist. Then, at some point during an editing pass he recognizes the shortcoming and slips the word ‘ambiguous’ in at the end to let his readers know that he knows the plot’s vague so it’s not a naïve accident which means he’s still a genius writer.

In my current working opinion the author’s name helped this book a lot. The sketchy perspective coupled with florid description and overly complicated sentences, many, many of which made absolutely no sense to me, even with a dozen rereads just to be sure, dropped me out of the book. I never connected to the main character. I never connected with the narrator, either. I couldn’t handle more than two pages a night and even when I set out to make good progress, I’d fall asleep. Yes, I read through it, yes I figured things out, but it was an effort I’m reluctant to duplicate for this author.

The book could’ve been amazing. It was something I really wanted to enjoy. With proper editing it might’ve won all the awards.

I’ll say it again, even geniuses need editing.

At minimum I’ll use it as an example of how authors can get in their own way.

Oh yeah. The one line of dialog at the very end that earned this innocent book a bashing against the front door, my favorite character says to the boring main character, “Something tells me I’ll see you at the next apocalypse.”

No, you won’t.

Organizing the Written Word

The other day I got a chance to brag about writing. A proper chance, too. Not one of those long winded life stories that makes people’s eyes roll around like lazy Fentanyl drenched marbles. A writer friend was genuinely curious and asked what I had been up to regarding writing.

That’s a dangerous question to ask a person devoted to a lonely art.

So I described my current workload. To that novella of a text I was asked the follow-up, “How do you organize so many projects?”

Hmm. It’s not really that many, but I’ve seen the same question pop up a few other times recently. I answered my friend thusly.

Identify what needs the greatest imaginative attention. That’s usually rough drafts and early revisions. Those demand the most energy. For me that’s the first part of the day, when the coffee is fresh and the day is long.

Identify what needs attention, but not imagination. Sorry to say, but I typically reserve the after imagination hours to reading other people’s work. I simply can’t sacrifice my best for someone else’s revisions. Beyond that, I’ll take this time to hammer out my own edits. Simple stuff from tidier versions. Also blog posts and social media bits.

Identify the most mundane tasks. These I save for the last part of the day. I use paper so I spend the evening transcribing my day’s work. This is also when I do my research. Look for outlets, reply to emails, adjust plans. And it’s where I organize for the next day.

Identify with readers. How’s that? By reading. Always read before bed. And any other part of the day, but especially before bed. It puts words and ideas in your mind right before the subconscious jumbles them up and turns them into dreams of the future.

That’s my basic process. Pretty easy.

I’ve heard thousands of other scheduling formulas and every one of them works for the person espousing64bce91e-a691-4ec8-82ba-dc9efb46b54b_560_420 that system. Spend sixty minutes an hour and you’ll be published overnight. Commit just one minute a month and you’ll be on your way. Categorize according to moon cycles. Whatever works, as long as it works and what works for me is understanding my creative energy dwindles throughout the day so I prioritize accordingly. If you do your best work at night switch it all up. Read in the morning, research at noon, blogs and Twitter in the evening and novel write by cricket chirps.

I talked to another writer with this question and as she described her insanely hectic life I couldn’t help but admire her dedication. She asked because she was desperate. She can only commit one single hour a night to writing. She’s not happy about it, but work schedules, children and starting a business all consume her finite time, but she writes. She writes on top of all of that because she loves it. All I could say is that at the end of each night at least she has one hour closer then she was the previous night.

Then there’s the people who make me feel like I’m standing still. Writing tons, blogging, forming publishing companies, editing, continuing their education, marketing, hosting workshops and still managing the rest of life. Granted, their schedules are different than mine, but I’m still jealous.

That is the work life I’m striving for, though I’m not yet ready for the business end. I’m currently committed purely to writing.

But how do they do it? My busy friends take their responsibilities in bite sized chunks. There’s no way anyone can do all of that at once. So instead of committing their best hours to specific endeavors, they commit entire days to one aspect of the writing business. Covers, ISBNs, queries, websites, social media and the billion other details that go into self publishing.

And the number one way to maintain production throughout the constraints of life—Don’t play social media more than you have to. Sure, it’s important, but it doesn’t write your book. Only you can do that with the limited time you have. Now, quit reading this and go write.

 

Movie Review

Have you ever watched a movie so bad that it’s good? Maybe you have a favorite, a guilty pleasure from certain times or places. A crap movie that, by virtue of nostalgia, or absurdity, you absolutely love. Then there are those shows you loved as a kid, recall fondly, but they simply don’t hold up to your adult sensibilities. Lately I’ve found that many of the movies and television shows I liked as a kid I now find boring, slow and predictable. Styles have changed.

We have entered a new golden age of entertainment.

Yes, I’ve heard this before with respect to specific media—movies, television, books—but it all comes down to writing. So many people are vying for so few openings that all the creative industries have bred cut-throat competition, where people write harder, explore deeper topics, expand non-traditional markets. All of this dog-eat-dog for our entertainment.

Then came a recommendation that opened my eyes to the gold all around me. One of those off-the-cuff suggestions that always go ignored. This time bordered prevailed. I actually watched what was recommended. I was not disappointed. This wasn’t a movie so bad it was good. This is a movie so bad it’s genius. A movie so fantastic it could only be written by a film student studying an era. Whether a spoof or an homage, this film did not simply copy movie themes of the 1980s, but captured the experience. As best as my young self can remember. Movies, television dramas and cartoons, music and comic books.

The writer (also the director and star—yeah, it’s that kind of a movie) embraced writing clichés much to my delight. 1985 Miami with a dystopian Lower East Side feel. Random shootings, burning buildings, overwhelmed police, business as usual.

Okay, first off, remember my last post about knock-out scenes? Well, this took the concept in a different direction that worked. The action star is battling a maniacal robot, then the tracking goes out. A detail only connoisseur of VHS tapes would appreciate. When the tracking comes back the fight continues hanging from the skids of a helicopter. Tracking goes out, comes back, they’re fighting on a crane, all guns and lasers, back and forth. Tracking goes out, comes back again, the hero crashes backwards into the Hubble Space Telescope (which entered service in 1990, but I’ll forgive the continuity issue.) Then the robot and hero are about to clash in front of a full moon when tracking goes out. At last the hero stands over and shoots the robot dead with a cool, dry one-liner at the end. The entire sequence took about forty-five seconds. The idea of cutting out the how and only showing greater and greater action moved an introductory scene out the way fast while using a characteristics of 1980s technology to do it.

My second favorite cliché—the hacker. He appeared out of nowhere and turns out to be the world’s best, of course. This movie hacker could even hack time, but things go wildly wrong. The skinny nerd with glasses, an awesome ‘80s mullet and a wispy mustache who slowly faces the camera when introduced to signify his importance nailed the weak camera work from so long ago. Again, whether a spoof or an homage, it worked for this show where it couldn’t have for anything else.

(Exposition warning) Computer hackers have become the wizards of urban fantasy, able to whip up fixes to keep the characters moving through a story with little or no consideration as to how. Some hocus-pocus, geek-speak and voila. It’s fun to listen to professional programmers discuss the unrealistic abilities non-programming writers bestow upon their fictional hackers.

Reflecting it does seem there were never more instances than in 1980s shows of buddies standing back to back, guns drawn, shooting in all directions. So this movie had to have a back to back scene. Make them scantily clad women, a Viking with an Uzi and a barbarian with a minigun. A MINIGUN! One rides a giant wolf, the other a tyrannosaurus rex. Throw in some heavy metal montages and how can this be anything but the greatest movie of all

barbariana-gif

Yeah, that’s the minigun.

 

time!

 

Plus Kung freakin’ Fu!

Whoa. Slow it down.

Got a little off topic.

Some people I’ve talked to absolutely hate this movie. I can respect that. The plot’s ill-defined, there’s action, but no tension and the wild characters make no sense. Even when the main character dies, there’s no sense of dramatic loss. He is eventually hacked back to life. And the bad guy (Adolf Hitler) escapes. Where’s the closure?

Despite those shortcomings this movie spoke to me. It hit on so much of my childhood. Video games, skateboards, boom boxes, even the fonts nailed it. The hero epitomized all the action stars into one. Sunglasses, red bandana, black leather jacket, collar turned up, laying casually on top of a Lamborghini in front of a giant palm tree framed sunset. More than the nostalgic imagery, the purposefully bad acting, the plot that did more to serve the scenery and the guns that never ran out of bullets made me consider how bad eighties action movies were written compared to modern works.

It’s probably not fair to compare 2010s movies to 1980s movies. Consider 1950s to 1980s. Movies in the 2040s will be magical compared to today.

Looking back there is so much to criticize about ‘80s action shows that seemed so awesome at the time. Shows now need more story, more justification, more intrigue, more choreographed flippy martial arts fights, better special effects, deeper character arcs. All that seems to get lost to time, to nostalgia until something so over the top comes out and shines a light on what has become unacceptable, but in a fun way.

Here’s a list of movies, shows and things that I thought I noticed thematic references to.

  • Immediately Buckaroo Bonsai for the sheer absurdity, though it lacked the same excuse-for-a-bad-movie-produced-by-cocain-addicts-to-score-more-cocain-money kind of feel.
  • Every 1980s movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conan the Barbarian, The Running Man, Predator, Commando. Maybe not Twins.
  • Lethal Weapon.
  • The Warriors.
  • Rambo. Not First Blood.
  • Karate Kid.
  • Bruce Lee movies for the awesome numchuck (I know how I spelled it) action using the ripped off arm of a Nazi.
  • Miami Vice.
  • Knight Rider for sure.
  • Cartoons—Transformers, GI Joe, M.A.S.K. (Yes, there was a cheesy PSA on teamwork from a talking dinosaur at the end.)
  • Bits and pieces from tons of comic books.
  • In the background there was a Tron video game. How much money did I spend on that one…?
  • And my favorite—the old school skate board, though I wouldn’t ride one today. Too bulky.

And the name of this movie. The first movie I’ve ever reviewed for writing. The only live action film I’ve ever wanted to discuss. Hold on to your seats. It’s…..Kung Fury!

Go here. Watch. Laugh.