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.

Advertisements

Anonymous Book Review 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is where my appreciation for this book comes out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry. Wrong tangent.

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

Pull it together, man. Get off the tangents.

Okay, okay. Sorry. Back to the review.

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

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

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

Anonymous Book Review 20

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

This book took me seven months to read.

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

But nothing. Even geniuses need editors.angry reader

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

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

I should’ve listened to my book club friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot was awesome, though, right?

Yeeesh…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, you won’t.

Anonymous Book Review 18

What a unique story. This book was fun. Overall pace was good, characters likable, interesting plot. And it had big words. I like big words.

The scope was huge. Alternate history where a tiny colonial player had nullified the real life powers to retain authority over conquered lands. But that was pure setting and never elaborated upon.

Every aspect of the plot was bedded in dualities. This power against that. One religion against the other. The nature of free will versus slavery with a fair amount of contemplation on both. That part imposed an amazing duality on a single character. A Catholic priest secretly advocating freedom for robotic slaves, pushed to horrendous actions by his religious convictions, yet arguing free will. Then captured and implanted with a spell to force his actions through pain inducing compulsion while pleading that he no longer had free will. That flip I found so cool.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy favorite duality throughout the book—alchemy versus chemistry. Yep. In this world they both exist and they’re employed by opposing forces for war. Magic clockwork robots built to slaughter can only be stopped by glue bombs with both sides engaged in an arms race to limit the other’s advantage. Yet another one of those “nailed it” parts of the story.

Now to the alchemically enhanced nuts and bolts of the story.

This was a good sized book. Four hundred and forty pages. Three point of view characters need a lot of space to work. The author wrote so floridly at the beginning, sprinkling in similes by the handful, that the story took a few chapters to get going. Not that there wasn’t a catchy hook and a compelling scene, but it all felt bogged down in the beauty of the world. Those big words that I love so much? Yeah, they became noticeable and to be honest I don’t feel good about pointing that out. Words need to be written and used, but a story isn’t about the words.

I thought this was a tremendous first novel. A bunch of subtle flags gave me that impression and after a meeting of the minds, I wasn’t the only one. Though the author actually has several other titles. Yes, the wordiness threw the first of those flags as though the industry hadn’t yet beaten the love of words out of him. Aspects of the narrative, too, waved another flag. Written in third person close perspective in the past tense (my favorite narrative form), the narrative itself had very strong opinions. The narrative used pejoratives for the opposing characters, even cussing about plot twists it had just informed me of. Yes, I understand the close perspective is interpreting the thoughts and feelings of the POV characters, but this almost treaded into a first person view that made me think it was edited from such. I found several typos, though none to suggest the perspective was actually changed, but taken together, they layered in the feel of a debut novel.

Throughout, this book was very visual. While that added to its all around goodness there was a lot of details paid to bodily functions. Including observations drawing lines to the many qualities of vomit. I could’ve done without. A little glossing over or hand waving would’ve been great for that and a few others seriously taxing sections.

Pacing…. If you read my previous post you’ll know how I like a well paced book. The hair is split with this one. Pacing in the big picture—Hit. Pacing through action scenes—Miss. Overall there wasn’t one throw-away scene, except, perhaps the gratuitous sex scene. Again, a hand wave could’ve done, but even that scene built tension that carried through the book. Things moved fast. I couldn’t tell what would happen from one scene to the next and even when I had an idea, the scene got there faster with consequences greater than I had expected. This is where the author showed his well seasoned writer chops. I liked it and it kept me reading.

The other part… this author is so descriptive he can put you where he wants. The down side to that is during tense, high impact scenes that need to flow really fast he describes the beauty around his characters. This ruined the pacing of many, many scenes. At one point his character even paused to acknowledge how funny it is that it should be observing beauty while in a race for its life from some impressively scary things. NO! I might be able to relate, (High school football, face down under a pile of animals, pondering the blades of grass poking through my facemask), but it sucked all the tension out of the scene and diminished my level of caring. (Coincidently, I wasn’t the best player, either.) This also led me to assume it was a first novel. But it’s not. He has a bunch. Sure, I turned out the light and went to bed during these parts, even cursed a little in frustration, but the story was still worth reading.

Okay, the finale. I kind of knew that this book began a series. I kind of figured there’d be a question leading into the next. And when every story line concluded with a cliff hanger I shrugged, a little crestfallen at such an open end. I would’ve preferred at least a semblance of resolution. Meh. Internet says the guy is friends with George R. R. Martin, so he gets a pass on conclusions. The part that put me over, the one scene that utterly, unequivocally disappointed, the one devise I’ve known about, yet never reacted to so strongly—? The knock-out scene. Right at the end. Right where an explanation was needed most.

A little exposition. Knock-out scenes; when the hero is in a dire situation, when tension is at its peak and there doesn’t seem to be a way out. The hero is knocked unconscious, then miraculously awakens in safety where the events of the rescue are recounted by another character. The hero survives through no fault of their own. It’s anticlimactic. Often a wave of the hand to speed along a difficult scene. I’ve even heard it called lazy writing. Personally I don’t mind if they come early in a story, they can set a tone or send a message, but this one….

Character has fought its way to the heart of the evil empire, battled enemies beyond its class. Its free falling into the center of an alchemical inferno surrounded by vats of acid with massive metal rings collapsing all around while the castle crumbles! It blinked off just before certain death. Next scene… the character wakes up safe. A nameless helper switches it on and says it was luckily buried in a gap when everything else in the chamber was incinerated and crushed. The few other survivors were found around the outskirts of the castle.

Great character. I’m glad it survived, but why did I have to read about so much vomit instead of how it managed to escape, other than knocking itself out. I would’ve preferred this character to die accepting some kind of metaphysical conciliation to living like that. It just didn’t fulfill my expectations.

Breathe….

It’s not until I looked into the structure that I saw things that robbed the tension and allowed me to take breaks during action scenes. And those are extremely picky reasons to disparage an otherwise great work of fiction. The unique alternate history, the perpetual dualities, the themes of free will and slavery, the beautiful description, the well drawn characters, all of it made such a fantastic book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It is one that I’ll wholeheartedly recommend.

Anonymous Book Review 17

What an amazing book series. This installment covers the third of a trilogy, the first two of which stunned and the last didn’t fail. The author wrote something special and I hope there will be more to this universein the future. Preferably from the unstoppable aliens’ perspective. They were funny.

As I approached the end, when the situation looked bleakest, I tried guessing where the story would go. I suspect that’s for my own comfort because the tension was so high that I wanted to imagine a victorious conclusion. The scene was set for outright devastation, odds were impossible and the main character’s only option was to give herself up to buy everyone else a little more time.

I thought of two fairly obvious ends. The main character should prevail (I’m taking comfort in the structural form of the narrative itself), but that would only solve a part of a problem which could only be resolved with more books, though I haven’t heard rumors of any more. Or the main character might die, which would have to be handled extremely well for the ending not to suck. The author is talented enough to pull that off.

Neither of those options occurred.

The pace of this book was incredible. I couldn’t tell where the end was going. In fact, at no point in the series could I tell where the next scene was headed. And not because a lot of stuff happened fast. Actually the opposite. People interacted, ships flew, aliens quibbled and the action scenes lasted only a few paragraphs, but the story moved.

This is the stroke of a master. The author stayed at least one step ahead of the reader. Granted, I’m not a very savvy reader. No decision made was apparent to me, yet every turn of this story made perfect sense. Even the end (which lacked the devastation I was hoping for) was set up in book two.

Everyone has read a book, acclaimed books, too, that drag. Where there’s never a surprise. The plot is good, the characters are likeable, action making or love scenes are handled well, but it’s an otherwise bore.

Enter pacing.

Listening to children is tedious, not because their lives are dull, but because they don’t know how to tell Child reading to elephantstories.

Enter pacing.

Radio talk show banter sounds natural until a caller tries to tell their tale.

Enter pacing.

When your coworker describes at length how his bombastic presidential candidate is better than your bombastic presidential candidate.

Enter, well… that’s just obnoxiousness.

See? That unnecessary scrap of information bogged down the pace, slowed the flow and let a reader’s mind wonder to topics outside the page in front of their face.

I once listened to a highly acclaimed author talk for a while. Audience members had asked if he was going to make a third book to the two he’d all ready released. The first was a stand alone, the second was written under popular pressure. The author revealed that he intends to write a third, that it’ll take place a few years after the others when the main character and his girlfriend are adults. Okay, none of that really intrigued me until he mentioned that the story following these adults would be written in a YA style. When asked about that he explained that word choice and pacing make the YA more so than the character’s age.

Pacing, again. There is too much to pacing, word choice, sentence length, talk styles in dialog, all of it to build the proper feeling for the right moment. But the idea to anticipate and stay ahead of a reader’s expectations delivers a surprise with every scene.

I like fast paced books and even though these books moved slow as far a locations they moved quickly in the interactions between people. And interactions make the story. Loyalties, motivations and tension move the story forward. The greater of all three, the faster the story will progress. Or slower, if the authors purpose is producing long, involved works. In this case it moved fast. Which led to the subplot which wound back to become the justification for the resolution I didn’t see coming until the very end.

I had an impression of an end I would’ve like, though that required several more books, and the pace of those books would have to change. To be honest, if I magically got my way I don’t think they’d change for the better.

The next time you find yourself either enjoying a book or bogged down and bored, take a moment to analyze the pacing. Do you know what’s coming, or is the next scene a mystery that keeps you reading?

 

Anonymous Book Review 16

A masterpiece. The pacing, the characters, and in this case, the writing itself, all fell into the right seams. This book is the second in a trilogy and it thoroughly defied my expectations.

How’s that?

I’m not a fan of space station stories—DEFIED!

I’m not a fan of third person omniscient points of view—DEFIED! Sort of.

I get bored with long winded social messages—DEFIED!

Infallible captains are tiresome—DEFIED!

In general I haven’t enjoyed space station stories because it’s usually a ship that goes nowhere. All kinds of deceit and intrigue takes place among species whose dominant character traits resemble somethingAstronaut Pic human. Good, bad, caring, loving, militaristic, and then these traits come into conflict with only the station administrator or a good natured captain to mediate the tension. The problem is there’s never a good enough motivation to keep everyone playing the game fairly. Why not send troops to expel the ne’er-do-wells?

With this book the station stayed near a planet in a well traveled solar system. There were other ships, important ships, moving about. It was big with an organic environment that supported the inhabitants. And it was old. Generations of people, an entire subculture, grew and lived within the dilapidated portions of the station developing their own adaptations to an impoverished life. It added more depth to the space station than some structure drifting about. It had a reason to exit above good will to all.

The social message played into the story fairly quickly with the infallible captain immediately finding a cause for the poor. Take that imperialists. The B plot played out as the justice minded captain made enemies of the privileged who sought to destroy the interloper, opening up a reason to find the culprit, talk to the down trodden and reveal improprieties leading back to the A plot. This one quietly built a narrative that let me take a look at real life from another perspective using thinly veiled allegory. I love when that happens.

Only one alien made an appearance in this book. Its species feared by humans, the individual’s presence leading to suspicions within the A-plot, it had an unsettling way of subverting all human and AI security. And with a very funny disposition that added levity to an otherwise somber tone, it died within two pages of its introduction. That took the infallible captain to the planet’s surface where the B plot got going rounding out the rest of the book.

I sure hope the aliens return to destroy humanity if they’re this funny when they do it.

I can’t discuss why I liked this infallible captain without discussing the most crucial part of this author’s writing technique. The story is written in the first person, but the main character is plugged in (wirelessly, of course) to the surrounding artificial intelligences, a battle ship, a lesser war ship and the space station. Then all the ships’ crews and important people on the station were enhanced so the AIs could read thoughts and emotions while being able to see everything everyone did continuously with very few blind spots. Here’s the beauty of this book’s style. While written in the first person, the main character was able to narrate every action and emotion from all the characters in an omniscient style without ever breaking the first person POV. The scene switches were important, concise and always felt close. It was an omniscient view from a close perspective that worked amazingly well for me.

Now to the infallible captain. Everyone’s read a piece of sci-fi where the captain is perfectly confident in words and actions and never lets the crew down. Tough, but fair. To a great extent this is very much the same, however, this captain, acting upon authority vested by the tyrant emperor over the entire military apparatus, carries several secrets. Its origin, the truth about a very quiet civil war and the nature of its mission. With that kind of baggage every choice and decision, weighed in terms of secrecy and loyalty to unreadable factions, added tension and consequence throughout the book. Not a choice of this or that with only thin margins for success lesser men may not see, but conundrums that lead to greater conundrums always searching for missing pieces to the wider plot. The infallible captain moved the story forward, but not on orders for the sake of orders. With the pieces unfolding wider dangers hid just out of sight, dangers that threatened the whole of an empire this captain served, yet didn’t entirely agree with.

This may give the book away, but I don’t care. The author chose an interesting form of social order. Yes, imperialistic, yes, feudal, but even a step further. I can’t call it a matriarchy because lineage isn’t discussed in detail. Nearly all of the pronouns are feminine. Everyone is a she and a sister. My grasp of the pronouns was better this time than from the first book so I didn’t spend much energy thinking it through. At one point, in a less civilized community one girl had a brother, but the brother was later called a sister and referred to in terms of she. Interesting. So binary genders exist in this world, yet there was never any distinct gender identifying descriptions, or actions for any character throughout. Even though sexual propriety was discussed in some fair length, orientation never mattered which flowed into a greater theme that for the story narrative gender itself never mattered. From my writers perspective gender has always defined the who, as in the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a story.

While the technique was interesting as an experiment to see if distinct binary pronouns are necessary to tell a good story, the overall effect did something every sci-fi story needs. It removed the reader from the real world, yet not so much as to make it unidentifiable. Naturally English readers can take comfort in the familiar pronoun she. Okay, grounded in the humanness, dealing with people similar to me. You know, human. But now that everyone is a she there’s something different. The culture is different and within the difference anything can happen. This notion of differentness allows for FTL travel, loving AI, and comedic domineering aliens. Sure, all of those have happened hundreds of times over without the gender ambiguity, but with the indistinct pronouns holding a question in the back of one’s mind, the reader is never permitted, not even for a sentence, to slip into the familiar world they inhabit. And the greatest accomplishment, the reader is never pushed into a world so foreign as to be uninteresting or boring. It’s a keen balancing act from a skilled and bold writer.

Huhhhh…. I’m out of breath. I’ve already got the last book and can’t wait till this post is finished so I can start reading. If anyone wants to know the name of the book and author leave me a message. It’s taking all my strength not to shout the names simply to preserve the theme of these book reviews.

 

Anonymous Book Review 15

What a difficult book to review. The story could be called thin, the main character whiny and the theme indulgent. The first book of this two book series slayed me. I loved it. I wrote about it as Anonymous Book Review #2. Of course that sold me on the second book. Which I liked as a text book better than a here-and-now sci-fi adventure. With this sequel I was bored at points. I was enthralled at points. I was annoyed at some points. I wantedr it to be mandatory high school curriculum at other points. The plot and characters were written around info dumps, the author says as much in his afterword, and those were my favorite parts.

This book opened at a massive desert festival that will go unnamed to preserve a semblance of anonymity. Fun. Odd. But three entire chapters were devoted to the festival scene. I’m not talking about a book or movie scene. A scene, like the kind the cool kids hang-out in. Within that description the author spent two or three pages describing his favorite coffee and how his method is superior to the 99% other methods of brewing. First freakin’ yawn.

For all of the info dumps the coffee scene entertained me least. The coffee instructions were a perfect example of an author’s baby. Their literary baby. The thing authors love and believe the rest of the universe should love as much as they do. This one was easily identifiable by the word count alone and to me earned the most horrendous of all writerly advice. The author should’ve killed his baby. Literarily.

First chapter—no conflict. Second chapter—the beginning of conflict, but nothing much. Third chapter—the inciting incident. And just in the nick of time because basically it was the chosen one being anointed moments before the quest began. Then the predictable reluctance to build tension, though there’s never any question which direction the hero will take.

The stakes almost got serious. A little torture, but he’s out. His friends and family never felt any danger. Then he gets the job of his dreams working for the Perfect Politician. A guy so caring and insightful as to be mythical. At first I hated it. I don’t want to read overtly political fiction, but then I came to see this figure as an ideal blueprint of what a textbook politician should be. A golem built of clay with a mind and heart pure enough to follow. Meh. The fantasy was nice. I guess I’m left with Bernie Trump or Hillary Cruz. (Note to writers: This is how you date an otherwise timeless blog post.)

The protagonist was led by other characters the entire way. There was a good supporting cast, friends with the same or better skills that helped throughout the novel. Some of them might’ve made better main characters, though the protagonist was the hero of the last book. There were enough call backs to infer motivations, or lack thereof, but I still wanted a more active hero.

One thing that really put me off the protagonist came from an unusual place. At first it was a little funny, kind of playful, and totally relatable, but the girlfriend continuously berated him. Even to the point where the main character repeatedly called himself an idiot. They loved each other, but the interaction felt uneven and degrading. Even in the interpersonal interaction the main character was led. And led to poor conditions. A little more banter, a little more equality in the relationship would’ve done wonders as far as me liking the protagonist. Seriously, at some point capitulation loses its charm.

I felt as though the author was holding back. He could’ve cut loose exquisite prose, yet refrained to maintain the young adult voice of the novel. I also felt that he followed the handbook on novel writing checking off every box that made the protagonist likable. We got to hear about the main character’s sad, out of work parents, the dire conditions of society and overwhelming powers crushing everyone into serfs. It added texture and tension, but it didn’t come close to nailing the suffering that it could’ve. Almost like the throwaway line “they were lucky,” was used to get out of the hard work of writing really painful stuff.

Things are moving along, right? The situation is getting perilous. Down to the darkest moment. The bad guys are after him, the FBI is interested in him and he loses his dream job. Oh no, what’s he going to do? Where’s he going to run? How’s he going to escape to win the day?

Well, an old friend shows up, negotiates with the bad guys. The main character is free of them. His old boss, Perfect Politician, talks to the FBI, gets them off his tail. Then he’s paid a month’s salary out of Perfect Politician’s own pocket because that’s how great of a guy he is. What happened to the consequences? What happened to the tension?

After being led for several hundred pages, with that very squishy notion hanging over his head as a plot point, the protagonist makes the one and only decision, one bland action that defines who he is for the rest of his life. And then the book ends.

What? That was it?

I didn’t check to see where the story ended. There was still half a centimeter of pages to go, so the end snuck up on me. Damn. That was disappointing. The epilog picked up a year later at the same festival doing the same stuff. Another admission of idiocy and everything wound up happily.

Rrrrrrr. It was too easy.

And what was in the last half centimeter of pages? Three chapters of the first book. Not the next book. Not another of the publisher’s books. Three chapters of a book I’ve already purchased.

That’s a lot of negativity. So what did I like?

The techno babble info dumps kept me reading. Those I found entertaining. There was technology I’m curious about that is just outside my skills. With a few more pieces of hardware I can… well, at minimum I’ll have a few more pieces of hardware.

For all of the story’s detractions, this techno dump info babble would be as dry asHomer Studying microwave instructions without the protagonist being led through the marvelous exposition. Like the statistically magnificent majority of technology consumers I wouldn’t have the least inclination to look up, follow up, or dream up uses for the tech all around me. With that in mind, the book changed from a mediocre story to an amazing textbook blending purposely obscured civil rights with technological freedom and independence. There is much more to the virtual world than my ISP lets me see. As a child raised with George Orwell’s 1984 always floating near grown-up conversation (mostly as simple agreement or acknowledgments, nothing deeper) the idea of a space actively denied to me for my own safety by the powers that be is intriguing.

Well written structurally. Important issues raised through allegory. Dry subjects enlivened by sympathetic characters. I liked this book well enough to want a little more. It’s the first book I’ve read where I thought about rewriting it as a favor to the author. I’m sure he’d appreciate it. Sure, while he’s got several published books, thousands of published articles, fame and fortune to last a lifetime, I’ve got a blog. Which obviously qualifies me to rewrite all the world’s literature.

Have you ever almost liked a book to the point you wanted to rewrite it? Share and we’ll discuss.