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.

It’s You, Not The Reader: Owning Your Critiques.

Can you really be The Reader if you’re critiquing somebody else’s writing? Pure readers aren’t looking to improve the piece they’re reading. They only care about the story. If it works on an emotional level. All the technical reasoning behind a critique is nothing more than speed bumps to readers. Of course, too many speed bumps and people look for alternate routes. But basically, writers are not The Reader.

There. I’ve said it.

I understand what people mean, again, I’ve used the royal The Reader while critiquing other people’s work. But there’s something disingenuous about the term. At its best it’s a vague deflection, at its worst it’s a narcissistic, self-aggrandizing title without any foundation in reality.

Backstory: I need help writing. I try to get it from wherever I can. And I’ve heard the term from many, many people. One that prompted this new line of thought was a thorough, exceedingly helpful person who used The Reader scores of times to illustrate places that were confusing. As I read her comments there were a few parts that I thought might not be as confusing as stated. But how could I argue with The Reader?

Wait a second… It was only ever her.

Moving on.

Speaking as The Reader is a common qualifier at writing conferences and groups. I look past it to the meat of the comments and honestly, many more times than not, I can pull the positive meaning out of the critique. Editors and agents often describe things in terms of The Reader, too. Maybe that’s why novices like to use the term. I tend to cut industry insiders a little slack, but the same premise holds true. After all, Harry Potter was rejected by, what, twelve agents? Readers often surprise agents. Rarely to billion-dollar degrees. Not saying anything against the agents who passed on Harry Potter. Perhaps the story wasn’t a good fit for them or their agencies and they knew it. That’s being responsible.

Couching a comment from the perspective of The Reader does a couple things. First, it gives authority to the critiquer. The writer is in a subordinate position anyhow allowing someone else, often strangers, to judge a piece of art. Armored by the perspective of The Reader, the critiquer states a personal opinion as if it comes from the entire English reading population of Earth. The subjectivity of an opinion approaches zero as the sample size becomes all. An opinion from The Reader is not an opinion, but fact and the writer cannot disagree with the factual opinions of an entire planet.

Secondly, the term The Reader protects the critiquer from criticism. It’s a way for a person to say what they may not otherwise say. Let’s face it, this is a cruel business. Art is subjective, money is tight and human nature is petty. It is hard to say some of the things critiquers feel they need to say. I mean, we’re only trying to help each other. Strictly speaking. I know I’ve said things, based on a moral obligation to destroy because I only want to help.

Pffft. Bullshit.

But that was The Reader. Not me. I would never say things like that.

Without this, The Reader, to fall back on people would have to own their own ignorance. And who wants to show their ignorance? Nobody.

I’ve made the choice to announce my critiques as My Opinion. The comments are easier to shoot down as the ravings of an egotistical sociopath, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that my comments are not for me. I don’t need to convince anyone that my preferences regarding their work are better than their own. It’s not politics.

Oh, wait, it never works there, either.

The other side of this coin is proclaiming what agents do and don’t want. That’s the mystery in this industry. I’ve written tons of words, mostly in order with nonstop killing and sex. Why aren’t agents signing my enormous advances?

Because they’re smart business people.

I was in a group and one story of the bunch used a lot of dialect. In dialog and narrative. Someone said that agents don’t like dialect. My picky antennae prickled. I’ve heard that before and from well-placed authorities, but I cannot say specifically what agents want in a story. I haven’t hit the right chord, myself. I do know what they want from life. They want money. They want to sell the best story they can for the most money possible and if a dialect larded story is an unequivocal masterpiece, some agent will pick it up.

Speaking from The Agents’ perspective is a little different than The Readers’. Agents go to conferences, post on websites and plead with the writing community to deliver what they want. Critiquing other people’s work from The Agents’ perspective might be a little more realistic, but again, it’s leaning on the authority of industry leaders to stress a personal opinion.

So when someone says Agents don’t want dialect, space opera, or dreamy vampire love triangles, trust that for the right price everything works. And double trust that the right price is predicated on superlative skill.

I love writers. I haven’t met another group of people as imaginative that come from as many places, geographically, occupationally, or educationally. They’re interesting people who live amazing lives with a spark inside that wants to share abstract ideas. I love these people. It’s the group I identify with most closely. It’s just this one issue that I’ve head thousands of times, that I’ve said too many times myself, that got me thinking in a wider scope and made me face my own abilities with honesty and humility.

Writers have to own their words, both on the page and to their kind. And on that one day, when any single person can confidently speak for The Reader, that’s the day a dystopian novel opens and leads to the overthrow of a cruel and narrow-minded tyrant.

Sensational Endings from Solid Beginnings: Anonymous Book Review 24

I laughed. I laughed little more. I intended to take this article in a different direction. That was before I finished the story. Now I know the power this master author truly wielded. Not some jokes, not quirky idiosyncrasies, not a vision for a refined landscape, but the power to tie everything together, to bring it all around for a genuinely satisfying ending.

I’ve wanted to read something funny, something universally recognized for its humor. This author was also recommended as someone I have to read. No specific book, but him. I had mentioned the author and the book store lady pulled up this title. I didn’t know one of his books from the other, so I bought it. Sure enough, funny. It started out with a humorous scene, had a few more cleaver bits, stuff that seemed like knowledge from a different time and place. Situations I wouldn’t have hit upon in a million years of condensed humor writing. As I’m reading, I’m thinking how much I’d like to ask the author where the jokes came from. Sadly, he passed a few years ago.

His legacy: Eggs are funny. Almost as funny as bananas.

The books starts with how worthless the land was. Then delves into the foundation, how it was once a seabed. Lots of details. The author did his research. But it didn’t stop with

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Photo by Valentino Funghi on Unsplash

the land. I now know more about shepherding than I ever thought possible. The brilliant part is that there were never any info dumps, no long winded and obvious expositional passages. The soil composition and the shepherding all came as part of the story. They were clear and fun to read.

I’ve been stuck for endings before and the classic advice I usually fall back on is to read the beginning and tie things up from there. It’s a little clumsy at times. Usually there’s some massaging to make the beginning, middle and ending make sense. What I got from this was an author who started out with the symbols, then wrote the story around them. He might’ve seen the elements before the characters, before the plot, even before the tone. I mean, YA, but this could’ve gotten real dark real fast.

I’ve read books before where the outlines shined to me, I’ve even written about one in this blog, but this story seemed to transcend the outline. I can’t imagine this author sitting down with a bunch of lists and charts. I’m certain there were notes, but something seemed different. It was simple. Not dumb, just simple. Clear wants and objectives, relatable internal conflict which formed the subplot, and a strong, determined main character.

All of that is easy novel writing stuff. Well, easily noted. Easily recognized. Not so easily implemented. Add to this a mature writing style, confident in the narration, perspective and similes and you get a quality novel.

Take all of this, then sprinkle it into a deep and rich bed of symbolism, the kind that encompasses the overall grounding, quirky details of an eccentric, and rustic knowledge introduced as generationally isolated ignorance in the face of intellectuals who cannot spell the word, bringing it all together in a finale that ended where it started, yet flipped completely upside down and you come away with a humorous, lighthearted YA story written by an unequivocal master for what must’ve been his own amusement.

Phwww. I’m out of breath. That was a long sentence.

Breathe.

Okay, ready.

Question: Have you ever been in a car accident and time seems to slow? You can see everything happening and still have a thought or two, yet you’re completely unable to react? That was how the resolution happened for me. I could see the pieces tying together moments before the character. Then, with a second thought, the symbols had always been there. Everything came together beautifully.

And simply.

Therein lies the mastery. This beautiful conclusion of elements wrapped up in a simple manner, obvious with little thought, while the pieces were so unrelated as to be random background color. Almost anybody could’ve cooked them up in an outline and would still

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Photo by Martin Bisof on Unsplash

be a good writer. (Not anyone. I’m exaggerating, but you get the point.)

This book was a little below my preferred reading level. An easy fun story without much consequence past the ten bucks I’d spent. I know a lot of mid-level novice writers who wouldn’t read it because it’s not “their genre,” but there’s such quality in this author’s work he should be required reading for all wannabe writers.

Oh!My!God!

Just thought of another related symbol. This book is a gift I gave myself that keeps on giving.

I like learning from the books I read. There’s always something to take away. Some lesson I’ve heard somewhere always rings true somehow. This lesson is different. It’s revealed a next level skill and made me examine various works in progress. Not too many other pieces have got me thinking like this about my overall writing.

Is there a book or author that changed your writing style? Share who, how, and why so everyone can appreciate what you appreciate.

Revenge in Writing: Becoming the Monster You Swore to Vanquish

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Photo by Chen YiChun on Unsplash

Sometimes you want to jump into the deep end. Sometimes you think better and check the depth first. Then you realize there are monsters lurking beneath the surface. As it was when I wrote an article spouting off about the Star Wars prequels.

My article was a reaction to the Obi-Wan Kenobi stand-alone movie. Sixteen years as a hermit in the Tatooine desert just sounds boring to me. Especially when the prequels should’ve been written around his point of view, anyhow. Then I thought I should probably do a little research. I couldn’t be the only person to have an opinion on these movies.

<Clicks on first thing.> Mr. Plinkett’s movie review. Good as any, I guess.

Hmm… this Obi-Wan POV thing sounds naïve.

My article made me watch the movie reviews. The movie reviews pointed out major flaws. I then recognized those major flaws in the first novel I’d ever written. In those flaws, I saw well-worn patterns of new writers.

Basically, I came to an astounding conclusion watching these Mr. Plinkett reviews, one that rocked my writerly self-identity. The only reason I’d started writing was out of revenge for my unarticulated disappointment with the Star Wars prequels. Yet in this quest for revenge, I wrote in every way I unknowingly despised.

That Plinkett guy pretty much covered everything. Despite the narrator’s slow dumb talking, the humorous/horrific serial killer shtick, or the overwrought fixation on pizza rolls, the character Harry S. Plinkett described perfectly all that was wrong with these movies in a balanced tone of WTF and genuine compassionate critique. The reviews dove much deeper into the Star Wars prequels than I could’ve and explained how so many awesome devices were totally ruined by a lack of subtextual understanding.

Basically, George Lucas gets all the blame for the prequels. He gets all the credit for the originals, too. These two sets of movies create bookends of what’s good and bad in storytelling. Ideally, progress goes from bad to good over time, but not so much with these. I’ll let Plinkett describe that.

But here’s what got me. I saw the same processes, reasoning, and justifications from the first novel I’d ever written illustrated in these movie reviews. That’s when I saw what the mirror had been reflecting the entire time. I’d become the monster I’d swore to vanquish.

I still remember the day it all started. Standing at my workstation, wondering what went wrong, writing my first story ever on the back of scratch paper swearing it would be better than Star Wars. Ambition was not my shortcoming. Writing skill was. Over several sporadic years, an epic space opera unfolded and fourteen hundred hand-written pages later….

I took the first third to a writers conference ready to get rich. Instead, I discovered a couple basic reasons it sucked. Boring and unreadable for starters, then it went downhill from there.

Here’s the thing. Nobody said the story idea sucked. It was written by a base armature with no education or training. I had no idea how a story should be told so it didn’t sound like microwave instructions. Exposition, cheap trauma, clunky dialog and the most egregious of all—wandering POV.

Plinkett pointed out all of these in the Star Wars prequels.

But Lucas had written brilliant pieces in his earlier career. I mean… fucking STAR WARS!!

Exposition—how many times were we treated to long scenes in the Jedi council discussing or revealing information about the plot instead of watching the plot unfold? Yes, my first novel was rife with exposition, hell, so was my second. Jury’s still out on the third. Exposition is a trap all beginning writers fall into. They’re often unsure of what’s important and how to say it so they throw in the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, elaborate scenes and vivid imaginations (as if that’s a bad thing) take on greater importance than necessary and wind down confusing roads. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes a work of art great because so much relies on elements that were artfully left out. It’s something that needs to be experienced.

Cheap trauma—characters need believable motivations to do the things the plot demands, otherwise, readers can’t identify, get bored and don’t trade you their money. There’s a balancing act between making a reader want what the character wants and annoying the bejesus out of them. New writers often use violence and humiliation to justify implausible actions. I know I did. I remember wondering what should happen to make this character abandon the old ways. Something to break it down for a chance to grow and take control. Ah ha! Rape. Then I wrote it feeling very uncomfortable, yet believing this form of trauma was the only way to transform my character. This was weak writing. It was not compelling, did not foster the kind of sympathy I had expected, took readers out of the story and turned the antagonist into a cartoon bad guy. There was no nuance. There was no possibility of return for the antagonist, nothing to compel readers toward sympathy for that character’s perspective. I couldn’t build or sustain consequence filled tension for the duration of the book. The character was all bad. Just kill it. Why read the rest?

With the Star Wars prequels, we see cheap trauma transforming a character (though we’re never given a real protagonist) when Anakin’s mother is abducted and abused by the Sand People. This inspires the rage that nudges Anakin toward his dark feelings. Immediately everyone saw what this scene did to create the antagonist Darth Vader that we know and love. But it also created deeper problems for the rest of the movies. How could anyone, except a severely damaged person, like Anakin after that? Yes, his actions were understandable, but too far, man. Too far. It made Anakin all bad and irredeemable, yet there was always supposed to be a modicum of goodness in Darth Vader. Generals leading armies under some form of orders at least have a sliver of excuse. An out of control child-killing maniac? Nope. Not even burning him in hot lava and imprisoning him in a robot suit brought back any sympathy.

Clunky dialog—Write like humans talk and you realize civilization is doomed. Don’t write like humans and nobody cares. Dialog is the most intimate form of a character’s expression that writers have to work with (internal dialog included). On one hand, it’s easy because we all talk. To friends, to cats, to ourselves if the cat’s not around, it doesn’t matter, we talk. But in a literary setting dialog has to work hard. It has to be clear and concise, it has to move the plot, it has to stay true to the character and often it’s the vehicle for subtext. It’s the public representation of a character’s self and may or may not depict what’s going on inside. All these aspects should be considered for every dialog line all the way through. Too often beginner writers don’t quite grasp the awesome responsibility dialog carries. They’ll prattle inanely, then give Starship Troopers type rally speeches to outline the plot. Yes, this is how my first novel read. Literary dialog needs to be pithy. It needs to reveal something or set up a contradiction. It needs to carry its own interest and be there for readers to know they’re following a person, but it can only do that if it remains uncluttered, succinct and unexpected. With the Star Wars prequels, hardly any of this happened. Lots of planning explained the plot, none of the banter revealed anything about the characters and so much political this-and-that cluttered the movie with justifications for motivations and future scenes. Dialog is the icing on a cake. Some people like more, some less, but no amount is a proper dessert without a cake of a plot underneath it. Trust me. Icing alone is just sadness and regret.

Wandering point of view—My first novel spoke from whatever character I had in mind at any given moment. Some stories are told from omniscient perspectives and some authors are masters of the art. I was not. Characters are, in their simplest reduction, devices by which stories are told. They translate information into emotions, senses and

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Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

situations humans can relate to. Beginner writers tend to not grasp just how close a perspective can get and therefore how intimately a story can be told. With the Star Wars prequels, there was never a singular character to cling to. The result was a muddled interpretation of far-out alien worlds. This is where my original (very timely, I know) article took place, arguing for a witness’s perspective instead of many shallow character perspectives. Stringent consideration needs to be given to the person, plant or thing interpreting the plot. That simple acknowledgment builds consistency throughout the rest of the story. That consistency cuts down on the need for exposition. The reduced exposition opens room for more literarily natural dialog. Hopefully, from there, appropriate motivations can be established. All because a writer stayed with a distinct point of view.

Listening to those reviews in a simple dumbed down voice, I’d seen all the cliché mistakes of a beginner writer on display along with the consequences. Things like exposition, cheap trauma, clunky dialog and wandering POVs reduce tension and nullify the stakes. Nobody ever told me that my story was bad. Nor are the stories of the Star Wars prequels bad. It’s just that they were told in ways that deprived readers and audiences of characters and motivations to identify with and care about. Instead, both examples suffered from an ignorance of the true meaning of storytelling. Again, I’ll let Plinkett explain what Lucas was thinking. My thinking, however, was revenge. While stories about revenge might entertain, tales written explicitly out of revenge miss the point of why people will devote their time, money and faith in a writer’s ability. Writers can only hold up their end of the bargain when they focus solely on the purest reasons for telling their greatest story.

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.