Revenge in Writing: Becoming the Monster You Swore to Vanquish

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Photo by Chen YiChun on Unsplash

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

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

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

Hmm… this Obi-Wan POV thing sounds naïve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

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

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

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Science Fiction Names and Approaches to Spelling.

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

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

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

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Photo by Miriam Espacio on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

Except…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That first chapter did not disappoint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the Goldilocks—

Yeah, yeah, yeah, thank you mister obvious.

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

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Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

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

Thank you, Anthony Bourdain.

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Pasquale Vitiello on Magdeleine.co

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

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

Phew. Narrowly dodged a moral lesson.

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

Now to start cutting words.

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.

Can I Brag?

The rough draft to my third legitimate novel is finished. Started November 5th, 2015. Ended June 24th, 2016. Seven and three quarters months. And it’s only 74,500 words. Not exactly what I was shooting for in terms of time or word count, but to some extent, every story writes itself.

This writing business is a strange and amazing process. So many twists and turns to the story of the story. Grandiose ideas that fizzle. Characters’ morphing arcs, motivations, genders. And here, at the end I’m sitting back thinking of all the turning points. How, if this didn’t happen in real life, than I wouldn’t have written that piece of fiction. In this story’s case, if events had happened differently two years ago, I would not be posting thisMonkey-typing-300x214 write-up today.

I’ve composed this post to brag about an accomplishment, but also to illustrate the importance of writer friends. I’m saying this now in the afterglow of a finished rough draft because I knew I was getting close, but insurmountable barriers obscured my view of the end.

That is, until I reached out for help.

I have been thinking of this novel for about three, maybe four years. There’s even initial hand-drawn sketches of scenes in my two-inch thick stack of notes. What was originally a pure action hero became a deeper character struggling to answer questions. Of his allegiances, of the plot, of life. Shit gets blowd up, too, don’t get me wrong, but the focus has changed.

In one of the stranger twists, if a demoralizing event didn’t occur to me almost two years ago, I wouldn’t have met (again) the person who brilliantly forced me to reevaluate aspects of my main character, then helped me with major road blocks.

A few years ago I had met this writer lady through a mutual writer friend. The meeting was brief, just introductions, really. My second novel was in the works at the time, off to an agent, per request, who never got back to me (part of, but not close to the demoralizing event).

The second novel had major structural issues so I quit it to write this third. I had what I thought was a good outline, knew the plot points, drawn all the supporting characters so last November I sat down and started writing. My goal was 100,000 words in about four months. I wanted to be finished, or nearly so, by February, 2016, in time for a writers conference.

Yeah, none of that happened. But I still attended the conference. After all, writers conferences are good places to meet like minded people. This writer thing is so isolating to begin with, getting out and talking to other cave dwelling humans who intimately understand the struggle is refreshing. And after said demoralizing episode the conference was exactly what I needed to believe in myself again.

lrg-786-monkeys_-_best_friendsOkay, back to friends. I had met the writer lady again at the conference, this time in a sociable setting with dozens of other inebriated writers all exhausted from the busy weekend, all recounting shared writerly experiences. At one point I talked to a dude. A romance writing dude. About sex scenes. At a bar. Where non-writers could hear. More than the subject matter, the subtext and technique he explained to me was amazing. The information translated in my mind at first in the form of fighting scenes (my specialty), but then I figured out that the questions should be asked and answered about every scene. That was an awkwardly transformative conversation.

Later the writer lady and I discussed our works-in-progress, found out we live vaguely near each other and agreed to meet at some time later. That’s common at conferences, though it usually never happens.

After the conference I contacted one fellow (not the dude), met him for coffee. I’ve always hated a specific enormous chain coffee shop, but hell if it isn’t a convenient place to meet writers. Anyhow, we made future plans, but his course in life is a little different than mine and we haven’t seen each other since. I met another writer from the conference shortly after, read some of her stuff, though she’s at a different place in her writing journey than I am. We still keep in touch. I never like it when people discount me because they’re ahead of me, so I make it a point to never brush off others who may be newer to the game than I am. Everyone has needed help and everyone has help to give.

Finally met the writer lady. We’re in similar places, writing wise. I told her about a major problem I’d been having with my main character. She asked me one question. One damn question that I couldn’t answer. That one damn question stuck with me the rest of the meeting, the entire drive home and into that night despite normal household chaos. Over and over the question recycled without answer. I couldn’t shake it. It bothered me. Simple enough, but I couldn’t answer a basic foundational question about my own freakin’ character.

Then it hit me. I scrambled for paper, pencil, scribbled, thought, rewrote the idea legibly, placed it in my notes, wrote it into the rough draft, although I was about half finished. It defines the character so needs to be mentioned as early as possible, but that’s what edits are for. I was amazed that the one question could affect my writing in such a way.

But it didn’t stop there.

Approaching the end. My main character has a few more obstacles to cross, but I can’t figure out how. First problem—should a lady character get beat up? In the story she deserves it, but I just didn’t like the arrangement considering the following scene. No matter, I’ll jot it down and ask my friend later. As I wrote out the set-up and problem, I thought of an alternative that produced a much more meaningful end. Still two more lingering issues, one about motivation, the other about logistics. Coffee, I posit my problems and though a series of questions, some back and forth brain storming, we came to some rough solutions. Not write-arounds, not writing over them, these solutions ran straight through my problem spots. These solutions worked so well I finished the story two weeks after the last meeting.

Looking back, I wouldn’t have been at that conference without the demoralizing episode, which means I wouldn’t have learned about sex scenes from a dude at the bar, nor would I have found that foundational trait for my main character. I would have a couple more pointless clumsy scenes in the current draft and a less satisfying ending if I hadn’t embraced people from the writer community and asked for their help.

I finished writing my third legitimate novel, but more importantly I know there are people out there willing to invest time and energy into helping me succeed. It’s not a one way street, however. I, too, am willing to help others succeed. By reading manuscripts, brain storming problems, or sharing posts. It’s the friendships built over time that help all of us writers become better at our art than we were the story before.

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 14: The Book That Was Almost Perfect.

I’ve been wanting to read a police procedural for a while and this science fiction entry was a perfect fit. In that regard, this book did not disappoint. Elements of the premise are taken from the scariest pandemics to hit the planet, the sciency technology was cool and the Earth wasn’t besieged by some contrived man made apocalypse. All plusses.

There were quite a few pleasant set-ups and pay-offs throughout. And the end was satisfying. Now that the characters are established, I see where this can become a long running series. Actually heard a rumor that the second book is in the works. But I thought it could also stand on it’s own. The author did a good job making everything big. The protagonist works hard despite a larger than life reputation. The antagonist is planning to corner a global market at innocent people’s expense. The partner has real and destructive problems that play right into the plot.

Structurally this is a great book. As it should be. The author is a Hugo award winner along with a slew of other acclaims. In many ways this, in my humble opinion, is a good example of how to write a novel.

However….

My internal editor senses started tingling almost immediately. And not in the creepy good way that secretly begs more. What struck me strange was a consistent use of a same word within one or two sentences. Not unique or scenic words. Not words for repetitive effect. Just plain words like, before. The repetition affected my reading experience in a way that I didn’t expect. It probably would’ve been ignored if not for the tingly editor senses that have ruined most literature for me. These repetitions made me wonder if I had skipped something. Like, read the same sentence twice or missed an entire paragraph. I’ve gotten so used to varying word choices, both in my writing and from popular fiction that I noticed the repeated words.

I talked with one person, a fellow writer, and the repeated words didn’t bother him in the least. I talked to a panel of readers who hadn’t noticed, then chalked it up to the author’s own admission that he writes for popular markets and that he probably wrote to popular market reading levels. This makes big assumptions. One: that the author has a good enough command of the language to dumb it down. Two: that the author has a good enough grasp on popular expectations to write sloppy sentences on purpose. I don’t buy either of these.

Now I hate to give the impression that I didn’t like the story because of technical issues with the writing. This isn’t the case and I probably should say it more. I liked the story.

With that said, let’s go to everyone’s favorite segment—Politics.

Politics matters and you’re either with them or against them. Every human in the known universe holds a position on something. There’s no avoiding, so it’s entirely possible that a writer’s opinion or outlook will get into their story.

This is fine. Who could expect different?

The beautiful thing about long form fiction is the ability to craft a narrative over the course of hundreds of pages to come to satisfying conclusions. Not only does this include the hero’s journey, but the moralistic arc as well. Into which politics falls. I’ve read stories where I didn’t agree with the writer’s position at first, but over the course of the story, elements were introduced, choices faced and decision made that guided my personal beliefs into a softer, more understanding stance. I was shown new perspectives that I appreciated and incorporated into my life narrative. As a writer this is the lasting impression I hope to achieve if ever a personal political opinion sneaks into my stories. The art demands no less.

Unfortunately, this story did not live up to the demands I’ve unilaterally placed on the art. This author is fairly well known for his politics. I knew that going in and didn’t mind a bit. About two thirds of the way through I noticed a very… what’s a word like naïve, but not naïve because I know this author is well versed, yet something was missing, not to balance a personal position so much as to acknowledge a contrasting experience…. What is the word? Ahh. Wishful! Yeah, a very wishful approach to a political issue in the book with many sticky real life analogies. At which point much of the panel discussion dissolved into modern politics with one person inartfully supporting one side and another person declaring half of the United States’ population a scornful and mostly untrue name.

Come on people. Get back to the book. We are all sci-fi.

Again, I liked the story.

Okay, how do you feel about popular culture references? Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. Me, too. Sometimes I like them. Sometimes I don’t. This near future scenario had a Star Wars reference define the accepted name for a major component of the story. While I liked the name, I had trouble with aThreep quick reference becoming pervasive. And the derogatory term for these components was a shortened version from Star Wars: The Clone Wars. That was never mentioned in the book.

Overall this book did a lot right. I like to learn from those that have gone before me and studying established writers helps me discover what works and what doesn’t, particularly for my style. While the sci-fi was cool, the plot was interesting and the characters were deep enough, my suspicion is that this book was rushed. The pop culture references put instant pictures in the reader’s head, but it seemed too easy, almost a cheat, since the references didn’t have bearing on plot or character development. The politics, while well thought out and integral, could’ve used more depth, more insight into why or why not. And the repeated words are one of those things a couple more passes by the author or editor would’ve caught.

Or, perhaps the author is popular enough not to worry about those little flaws. I’m or there yet. Maybe one day, but until then I’m going to read and pick out the details I like and don’t like from as many books as I can cram into my tiny brain.