Anonymous Book Review 25: Contradiction, Contrast, and Contradistinction

The story came around to kick me in the face. At one point I laughed out loud. At another point I was asked, “Are you okay?” after a character had died. Yes, I truly enjoyed this classic from 1961.

But I had a tough time writing about this book. At first I wanted to discuss the humor, but that seemed too limited, especially after the humor faded. I was going to talk about the unlikable main character, but the character seemed narrow compared to the rest of the story. Then I tried to figure out the structure of the narrative, yet that didn’t hold up well for this article by itself. Not until I wrote this piece six times did I figure out what all three aspects have in common—everything about this book worked from contradiction, contrast, and contradistinction.

The author deftly controlled my experience from beginning to end and connected me to the story through a strange feeling of manipulation. The author dropped me into the middle of an inside joke where I had to piece together the context as I read. The main character was a big horny bully who faked basic ailments to get out of fighting the glorious war. Multiple points-of-view jumped around so much I wasn’t sure who the story followed. The timeline shifted between past and present with half the chapters devoted to wandering, overly descriptive histories of side characters. For those alone I believe the cliché applies; this classic couldn’t get published today.

Building the Humor: Contradiction

Yes, the multiple POVs seemed to get into the weeds, but afterward I realized that the author had built a rich world of personalities specifically for the main character to destroy. Without the long backgrounds revealing people under stress, their personal vulnerabilities in war, and superiority egos unchecked, motivations of ancillary characters would’ve come across as random and pointless. In this space the sarcasm and irony contradicted other characters’ words and actions illustrating the absurdity of the situation. People would call each other crazy in casual conversation over pedestrian issues, yet everyone behaved in ways that would otherwise be considered insanely criminal if the actions took place outside a war zone.

The style of humor started off irreverently funny… and then it kept going. It wore on me. I looked at the other inch of the book and groaned. If the humor continued much longer I was going to throw the book against the wall.

But it didn’t.

Here’s the mastery of the author. After about two hundred pages the disjointed back-stories started falling into place. Humor gave way to plot. The personalities that lent themselves to ridicule by the main character revealed the hopelessness of his situation. All of the character flaws and petty motivations exposed an overall existential struggle. It wasn’t so much a comedy as it was nearly a tragedy.

The Awful Main Character: Contrast

The main character wasn’t just unlikable, he was repulsive. It’s a war story, but this guy refuses his duty. He gangs up to belittle and degrade vulnerable people. Every other chapter he’s sexually harassing nurses or banging prostitutes. At one point he reflects on how much he loves the nurse while banging a random prostitute.

So how is the story built around such an unlikable character?

Slowly. Over the course of the book the contrasts revealed themselves. Yes, the main character is awful, but he’s going to die because of other people’s egos. The people he degrades are those who buy into the insanity. And he expresses his deepest love for the now unobtainable nurse in a poignant moment of transformation while doing what he’s always done. As the personalities fall apart around him, this repulsive guy transforms into the stable moral center of the story. We know exactly what he’s all about. The ancillary characters are bad examples of what the main character will become if he continues doing what he’s supposed to do. And as the ancillary characters drop off the main character tilts toward sympathetic. Over the course of four hundred pages I finally found myself rooting for this guy to somehow win.

The Structure Held It Together: Contradistinction

Nothing started like it should’ve and only one thing ended like it started. Everything in between was a gradual march toward the opposite where each step passed unnoticed until the story became right-side up. The story didn’t strictly follow the classic three act structure or the Hero’s Journey. The main character’s world was distinguished through contrasts (contradistinction) in the superfluous POVs and flashbacks. The narrative followed his reactions to chaos imposed on him from random sources rather than a single evil antagonist. At the beginning, the main character’s choices seemed enormous, like he was in total command of his destiny, yet as the story progressed he was revealed to be in control of nothing. From the reader’s perspective the protagonist’s confidence slowly rotted from the inside until only a hollow impression of a strong character lashing out from desperation remained at the end. This was a beautiful manipulation of a character’s arc.

Contrast, Contradiction, Contradistinction

The main character seemed the smartest person from the start. The guy who saw through official nonsense, had a quick wit and could talk to the ladies, but at the end, he was the last character who understood. And when he realized this, all aspects of the story came together.

There were sections where I had no idea what was going on, but it’s a war story, plus the sarcasm and irony kept me engaged. Those parts felt a little disconnected, but their eventual disintegration isolated options and forced the story’s ignoble conclusion as the only possible satisfactory ending.

B-25 Mitchell

I sought a humorous novel because I wanted to study how to write funny in long form. With this book I got more than I’d expected. I got an entire world that exploited comedic principles to deal with material that was itself deadly serious. And therein lies the power of comedy. To express issues that would otherwise be too painful to deal with directly.

Next time you’re reading a good book—hell, even a bad book—pay attention to the contrasting elements. I’ll bet the better ones draw greater distinction in the characters, plots, and endings.

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,


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.


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.

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.


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.

Writing, Reinvention, and Texas: Best Conference Ever! For Non-Fiction.

I had to get away. A sense of reinvention had been clawing at me. Maybe I’d gone too far, but a trip halfway across the country felt right. Sure, I found a new tribe of writers. But the people I’d met defied all expectations.

I’ve entertained an idea of freelance writing for a while without much thought or serious investigation. Follow one person on Twitter and develop delusions of grandeur. I mean, I’ve written a few articles, found a few outlets and raked together enough free clips for a basic portfolio. Then, like all starving artists, when the business ideas ran out the only step that seemed logical was to spend more money.

Let’s call it networking.

Not my strong suit to begin with….

Twelve links down the internet rabbit hole I found this conference happening in eight days in Austin, Texas. Not my first choice of destinations. I’d been to Texas. I wanted to go someplace else, but this conference hit all the right buttons.


Photo by Aaron Barnaby on Unsplash

And I was late for the early bird price breaks.

Screws it.

Gotta blast—

On my way to the hotel, I asked the shuttle driver about a restaurant called Whataburger. There was one about a mile from the hotel. I’d walk, but I didn’t want to. Would it be worth it? It’s just burgers, right? Maybe I’d skip it, find snacks at a gas station or something. Without a direct response the shuttle driver said in a heavy Louisiana accent, “Yeah, I’m hungry.”

Not a clear endorsement, but a better answer than I could’ve hoped. We went through the drive-thru, in a shuttle, off the meter, then a winding, almost aimless route around Austin. Off the meter. Best shuttle ride ever.

Austin, Texas is amazing. Everywhere I looked there was a cool café or artsy bar. People were out enjoying the cool weather in the middle of the day. And they looked regular. No hipsters gentrifying anything. Just people enjoying what they have.

Fancy hotel—Check.

Checking in with a greasy bag of food crumpled in my hand—Check.

Not understanding the British accent—Check.

Did not see that one coming.

The hotel was great, the burger, outstanding, the three-hour nap, superb.

Time for a pre-conference mixer.

Cool, I’ve got this.

Down to the hotel restaurant all spiffed up, ready to brag and bullshit. I didn’t know anyone so I got a drink and asked a few clumps of people if they were with the writers conference. None were.

I waited, tried to look less than desperate as though anything on my phone could be interesting. Another large group of people formed, all with name tag stickers on their lapels.

Good sign, right?

I asked a little old lady and found the first of only two raging egos I’d met the entire weekend. No, it wasn’t a writers conference. It was a dinner for grad school candidates in some long-winded ultra-specific microbiology program. That explained the young people’s anxious smiles and the old people’s smug frowns. I’ve never seen body language in a group reveal a greater difference in power. The lady could’ve simply said no, she could’ve said it was a school function, but she took the obscene time to spell out exactly what she, and everyone else, was there for to let me come to my own conclusion that I’d wandered into the wrong place. I saw a story in the little old lady’s demeanor that I doubt she knew she’d told, one of hopes and dreams to change the world, beaten down by self-satisfied professors, themselves lashing out from their lowered expectations, until she found herself with an advanced scientific degree whose only stable purpose took a path she didn’t like, where her self-esteem was based on tormenting others in the guise of progress rather than using her skill in creating a thing substantial. I saw a person, imprisoned to a campus by brilliance and fear, perpetuating cruelty to justify her life’s decisions.

Or, maybe her fiber supplement hadn’t kicked in. I don’t know.

The third hotel staff member I’d asked found out that the writers conference mixer had been moved to a different room.


First guy I met was loud, warm and inviting. Second guy, the same. I pulled up next to them. They were the coolest people. These were different writers than I’m used to. These were journalists and freelancers. Nonfiction types. All of them friendly and outgoing.

Did I step through a portal to a parallel universe? Same city, same building, so how could these people be so different from the grad-school whatevers?

I stayed up late, since I had the time zone advantage, talking with two brilliant individuals about the freelance and entrepreneurial mindset from people in the trenches. Before the conference even started.

Next day the whiskey caught up with me.

……Pressing on.

I strolled to the venue across the University of Texas campus. Nice walk, cool, lots of squirrels.

A few bleary-eyed greetings as the conference got underway and the keynote speaker took the stage. Hey, I knew that guy. I’d talked to him for two hours at the bar.

The conference had a panel format. Three to six people answering questions and describing their journeys. But there was something else to those panels, something I hadn’t experienced. There was an underlying drive in the speakers. It didn’t stop there. All of the attendees were hyper-motivated and super smart. I think everyone I’d talked to had a graduate degree from J-school. But nobody really discussed credentials. Everyone was nice. They didn’t buy my bullshit, either. They saw right through me. And I’m usually pretty good at bullshitting.

But everything about this was different.

I was so naïve that I mistook the panel on interviewing and thought it was for the unemployed. No! Get a clue, man. This was a journalism conference. It was interviewing subjects for stories. Vastly more helpful in my day-to-day to understand the other side.

There was the second ego whose words told a deeper story than I think he understood, though I doubt his obvious narcissistic disorder much cared.

Post-conference. I met the first two guys and asked about dinner. One guy’s sketchy taxi service driver suggested a place. A few locals confirmed and made recommendations. We piled into the second guy’s rental car and found the most authentic barbeque

20180203_185411 My Dinner at Stiles Switch in Austin, Texas 2018

Okay, my phone takes terrible pictures, but this was the best bbq I’ve ever eaten.

restaurant I’d ever seen. Almost cliché, but no, the places I go are clichés of this place. Best brisket ever, best ribs, best corn casserole. Pickles and onions on the side with two slices of white bread. What the hell do I do with those? Maybe a brisket sandwich? And the customers were real.

What kind of world do I live in where I can’t tell cliché from authentic, or people from hipsters?

Oh… California. You hear the impressions, but you just don’t see the shadows on the wall for what they are until you step outside the limelight.

A few more drinks afterward. This is where the gravity of my company captured me. These people were more than motivated. They were serious. They had money to make and nobody was going to stop them. Totally forward thinkers. They brushed off setbacks, found ways around problems and worked their asses off to achieve their goals. No pep squads, no feel-good cheerleading crutched in affirmation. These were go-getters. One person lost a contract worth more than my yearly income. That person took the severe hit and pushed on. Very little lamentation and no loss of motivation.

Honestly, it was exhausting trying to keep up with these people. But these were the types of humans I want to run with. Metaphorically. A few were competitive marathon runners. There was an independent spirit in the conference attendees coupled with a drive that waited for nobody, never asked permission, and made opportunities for themselves.

Yes, I was totally out of my league, but that’s exactly what I wanted. A shift. A different scene. A new approach to my writing. I don’t know if I’ll become a freelance writer, though now I see a path. What I do know is my writing has improved. Maybe not in the words or structure, but in the passion and motivation. There are no external gatekeepers holding me back, or validating my work. It is and always has been solely me. It’s only ever me and the amount of work I’m willing to put into the things I want to be.

The funniest part, these non-fiction people said they thought fiction was impossible. The way I know them, the only thing impossible is seeing through their own illusions. Now I’m sure that’s the greatest barrier for me to work around, as well.

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


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.


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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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.


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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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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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.