Friday, 24 April 2015

Review: Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide From New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School

Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide From New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School
Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide From New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School by Alexander Steele

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the pull quotes on the cover of this book (from a review by The Writer) says: "Explains all the basics of writing fiction in a simple, easy-to-understand manner." That's an excellent summary.

For a beginning writer, this will be tremendously valuable as an introduction to the important factors you need to consider when writing fiction: character, plot, point of view, description, dialogue, setting, pacing, voice, theme, and revision. (There's a closing chapter on the business of writing, but it's a bit outdated and almost entirely about traditional publishing.)

For an intermediate writer, which is what I consider myself to be, it's a good revision text with the occasional useful bit of advice, like "give your characters contradictions" or "after you write your first draft, decide what the story is about and rewrite with that in mind". If you've spent much time learning from other sources, though, whether it be podcasts like Writing Excuses or other introductory books or writer blogs or workshops, most of the content will be thoroughly familiar, well-trodden ground.

Although genre fiction is mentioned (in a patronising kind of way) in the first chapter, and the classes at the Gotham Writers' Workshop include some on genre fiction, almost all of the examples that are used throughout the book are from literary classics of the 19th and 20th centuries. There's nothing wrong with that - they're widely acknowledged as examples of good writing, and serve to show that different authors take very different approaches to the "rules" - but if you're not that familiar with literary fiction, some of the points may pass you by.

There are exercises, which would be valuable if the skills are new to you.

Recommended, but primarily for beginners.

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Review: Firebrand

Firebrand by Ankaret Wells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an "also-bought" on Amazon from the book I read immediately before it, [b:The Steerswoman|793297|The Steerswoman (The Steerswoman, #1)|Rosemary Kirstein||6398950].

I've been known to complain before about how steampunk novels typically take a great idea and execute it poorly. This one, in a refreshing change, takes a great idea (drawn from the fantasy world that Charlotte Bronte created as a child, which reflects more cultivation and knowledge of the 19th century than most steampunk authors show) and executes it fairly well, though very far from flawlessly.

The wonderful and wonder-filled world is more or less a background to the story, and, to be honest, the plot is not great and somewhat pitted with holes. The great strength is the main character and narrator, but even she has her flaws - not "character flaws" that appear in the book, but flaws considered as a literary character and potential protagonist. She's an intelligent and very witty woman, but she doesn't seem to apply that intelligence to anything, or have any useful skills or areas of knowledge - or even any useless ones. (I suppose that being quite good at sex is a useful skill, in context.) She doesn't have a really clearly articulated goal, nor does she pursue clear goals against opposition; she more or less drifts about reacting to events a lot of the time, and often reacting to them not very effectively.

The most decisive thing she does (small spoiler for an early event) is propose marriage to the sole remaining independent duke, apparently in order to escape the attentions of the emperor, but as I say, it's not clearly articulated what her plan is, or even if she has one. The duke, who has remained faithful to the memory of his late wife for years, and the main character, who has had two unsatisfactory marriages and a few unsatisfactory liaisons, then fall in instalove. This is the biggest unlikeliness in the plot, right up to the point where the big threat just kind of collapses at the end. It seems that the people of the duchy, who venerate the late duchess, become, quietly and in the background, mild converts to the cult of the new would-be duchess, for no really clear reason. But then, she's the kind of character that everyone loves (except people who are obviously nasty, like her stepdaughters), for no really clear reason.

There's some back-and-forth for the rest of the book in which it seems like possibly they might not get married for one reason or another, but I was never convinced by any of it, and it wasn't strong enough to drive a plot. Nor were the various, mostly half-hearted attempts to kidnap or assassinate her, which never seemed to result in her being assigned a military guard or taking any kind of precautions.

There's not quite one editing error per chapter, on average, which isn't a bad run rate (though they include a missing apostrophe from "children's" and "ten years' time" and a misplaced one in "gentlemen's" and "stepdaughters'" - I'm giving the correct versions here). Some of them are places where the present tense (which the book is narrated in) slips momentarily into past, or where there's a word missing from a sentence, or repeated.

So why four stars? It sounds like a bit of a mess. Well, it is, kind of, but the banter and the voice of the main character are very funny, and I always award a humour bonus to books that make me laugh. Listen to this: "There are enough potted palms to choke a camel. Somewhere a few rooms away a small orchestra are diligently at work. One of them may actually be choking a camel, though if so it's a soprano one." Or this: "I don't feel like myself, but whoever I am seems to be coping better with what's just happened than I would."

I was entertained, despite the lack of protagonism or a strong sense of plot (two things which are intertwined), and being entertained is important. I don't know if I'll read another book by this author, but I have another sample on my Kindle, so I'll give it a try and see what it's like, and if it shows signs of not having the same issues I'll buy it.

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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Review: Abhorsen

Abhorsen by Garth Nix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The completion of my "re-read" of this classic series, via e-audio.

Though I prefer books that aren't as dark and have a lower body count, it's so well done that I went with it anyway. Nix's characters are always strongly motivated, always protagonise their backsides off, and, in doing so, overcome obstacle after obstacle while things get progressively worse for them and the tension builds accordingly. I don't know if he's read Jack Bickham's [b:Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure|19146770|Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure|Jack Bickham||25288204], but his books are perfect examples of the advice in that book put into action.

In the earlier two books of the (main) trilogy - not counting the recently-published prequel, [b:Clariel|20662728|Clariel (Abhorsen, #4)|Garth Nix||6125574] - there was a certain amount of head-hopping in the middle of the scenes. It's not so evident in this third book, but the point of view is more omniscient than tight third-person. Omniscient is considered rather an old-fashioned POV these days, and the story might have been strengthened slightly by a tighter viewpoint; still, that would have deprived us of a few key moments in the viewpoints of Mogget and the Disreputable Dog.

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Monday, 20 April 2015

Review: The Steerswoman

The Steerswoman
The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those "former trad-pub book, rights reverted to the author, she's now publishing them herself and writing more in the series" scenarios. I found it via an "also bought" on Amazon.

I enjoyed the competent, experienced female characters (there is a young man setting out on his journey, but he's regarded with indulgent frustration until he proves unexpectedly useful). The hints that technology underlies the magic are nicely built up. The setting, in particular the institution of the information-gathering, map-making Steerswomen, is appealing, though there's no real justification of why it's mainly women who are able to (or want to) take the training, and there's no exploration of how they're funded.

Smoothly written, with only occasional typos. I'll be reading more in this series.

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Monday, 13 April 2015

Review: Book of Iron

Book of Iron
Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I described this to myself, about halfway through, as "like Jirel of Joiry by way of Roger Zelazny". If your taste in fiction is similar to mine, you probably know what that means and are excited already.

Things I loved:
- The protagonist makes magical creatures out of bones and jewelry.
- Going to a different part of the world changes how many suns and moons are in the sky.
- Although there's a good old sword-and-sorcery adventure quest, the book is really about the protagonist, a dark-skinned wizard from more-or-less Africa, finding a friend in a wizard from more-or-less Britain. (The cover whitewashes the protagonist, unfortunately.)
- Subtle, gentle hints of Arthurian legend that aren't overplayed.
- The author knows how to use language with a smooth facility that's, sadly, all too rare, and when she uses a vocabulary word, it means what she thinks it means.
- Although the characters clearly aren't unambiguously heroic (some are necromancers), they're also not antiheroes, and it isn't grimdark. Although the thoughts, emotions and relationships are complex and not the usual for-dummies versions, it's hopeful rather than nihilistic. I can see why Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch are together; this could almost be a Scott Lynch book in all those ways, though it's more fantastical.

This is a prequel to a series, and though the books are short (at least, this and the next one are), there's plenty in this one at least. I'll be reading the next.

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Thursday, 9 April 2015

Review: Lirael

Lirael by Garth Nix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm making my way through the trilogy again, listening to the audiobooks narrated by Tim Curry (who does an excellent job).

Nix captures the despair of youth wonderfully and movingly, for both Lirael and Sam. The pain of an ambition that can't be fulfilled, or of an expectation that you can't live up to, is excellently conveyed. It's also an exciting and suspenseful story, full of twists and turns.

The biggest flaw I noticed is that the author is a terrible head-hopper. If there are two people in a scene, he's likely to jump without warning from one viewpoint to the other, and then back again. It's disorienting.

I also wondered how Sam, who'd been away at boarding school out of the kingdom, in a place he couldn't do charter magic, had got so good at it (and at making things) just in the holidays. Apart from that, though, it all hung together well and carried me along unstoppably.

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Monday, 6 April 2015

Review: Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure

Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure
Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a classic book on writing technique, focussed on writing one particular kind of book. I'd call that kind of book "action-oriented popular fiction" - basically a thriller or suspense novel. That's not to say that the techniques aren't useful for writing other kinds of books, but the less your book is like a thriller, the less useful the advice will be.

I've shared extensive notes on Google+ under the hashtag "#sceneandstructure", so I won't repeat them here. However, in broad outline, Bickham lays out an approach that will give you a linear story - flowing logically and naturally from a disturbing change that challenges the character at the beginning to a resolution at the end.

He does this by proposing a structure he calls "scene and sequel". A scene is a moment-by-moment recounting of things that happen, starting with a character goal, moving through conflict that prevents the character from reaching the goal, and finishing with a "disaster" that leaves the character worse off than before. A sequel is about the character reacting to the scene emotionally, thinking about it, and deciding what to do next. Obviously, they follow one another neatly in alternation.

This kind of stimulus/response structure also occurs at lower structural levels. It's almost fractal, though he doesn't use that word.

Bickham does a beautifully clear job of explaining this, and then goes deeper, setting out how to vary the structure, how to resolve problems, and finally how to create a "master plot" to guide you through your story with the scene/sequel structure. He closes with useful appendices, giving examples from published fiction and breaking them down line by line to demonstrate his points.

I'd recommend this book if your writing has ever had any of the following common criticisms:

- It doesn't flow well
- It doesn't make sense or is hard to follow
- It fails to grip the reader
- Characters do things for no logical reason in order to serve the author's plot
- It's all action with no depth
- It's all reflection with no action
- The plot meanders with no clear purpose
- It was too slow to get going
- Everything fell apart in the middle
- The ending made no sense and didn't follow on from what had happened previously
- The villain's actions made no sense
- The stakes were too low and I didn't care about them
- The plot seemed contrived and ridiculous
- I didn't care about what happened to the characters.

Again, if your first priority isn't to keep the reader up late into the night turning the pages, this may not be the book for you. But if you have goals even vaguely adjacent to that, I strongly suggest you pick up a copy.

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Friday, 3 April 2015

Review: The Jump Journal

The Jump Journal
The Jump Journal by Douglas Corriveau

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, this was pretty much a train wreck, if I'm honest.

One of the reasons I bought it was that a reviewer on Amazon mentioned not noticing any errors. I can only assume they aren't particularly observant, because I noticed coming up on 90 (not counting some that were frequently repeated). The author, in the acknowledgements, thanks his editor/father for his help with a "conglomeration of typos, substitutions, and missing words," but there are still dozens left, not to mention seriously nonstandard punctuation. It needs the hand of a professional editor, who will still inevitably miss some, just because there are so many.

The notes I took included: Question mark or exclamation mark, pick one (hint: question mark); only ever one question mark, never two (this is a repeated error, but I only counted it once); three points per ellipsis, not two, not six, only three (or four if it ends a sentence); two, not three, hyphens if you want an em dash; either OK or okay, not ok or O.K; no capital after a semicolon; no full stop immediately after a colon; 400 or four hundred, not 400 hundred (twice); be careful about misplaced spaces (which a spell check should pick up). In general, type more slowly; make sure you're putting in all the words and that your noun and verb agree in number; cut down the "that"s ("the longer that I stayed, the more that a new feeling crept inside of me" is a sentence that needs no "that"s); learn when to use "all together" and when to use "altogether", when to use "some time" and when to use "sometime"; don't confuse "its" and "it's"; watch for the typo where/were; curiosity is piqued, not peaked; and you pore over research, you do not pour over it.

That's a selection, not an exhaustive list.

So, leaving all that aside, how was it as a story?

There will be some minor spoilers ahead. I'll be as vague as I can while still noting things that were a problem for me.

The overall concept is that a rather whiny, loserish college student gains, for reasons never explained, the ability to "jump" through time. Mostly this is the ability to take his consciousness back to an earlier point in the timeline and make a new choice with his knowledge of what his old choice had led to, but sometimes it involves his body going back. It's not really consistent. Also, his consciousness can jump forward if he's doing something boring and wants to cut to the chase (an ability which would occasionally have been useful while reading the actual book).

He falls in love with a girl who's, frankly, way too good for him and a total fantasy of perfection, uses his powers to "help" her, and she finds him out and is upset, because among her many perfections is complete moral integrity. Around this time, again for reasons that never completely become clear, he finds that there's a point in the year where he goes back to the beginning of the whole business (though not to his very first jump, for some reason) and has to live the year over again. Not wanting to mess up the sainted Amy's life, he wanders away from the campus and ends up in a different experience altogether. (There are hints at one point that this isn't just his problem, that there's a wall at the end of the year that will affect us all, but that's never developed and seems to get dropped.)

This turning-unwillingly-back-to-the-start event happens four hundred times.

Fortunately, we don't have to go through all four hundred, just the first few and then a selected number from much later (though the narrative is sometimes confusing about where we are in the sequence exactly). Partway through, I realised what genre it reminded me of: the picaresque, which is the episodic adventures of a rogue/drifter who encounters various people in various places as he repeatedly gets into trouble because of his moral flaws and has to flee to the next adventure.

The thing is, the main character here isn't much of a rogue. He's Luke Skywalker (mostly early, whiny, loser Luke) in a role that's better suited to Han Solo. The result is a picaresque without any fun. Portentous chapter introductions are followed by depressive and depressing events.

Two notable things that the main character doesn't do that you'd usually see in a picaresque: he doesn't gamble, and he doesn't have sex. An oblique mention in the acknowledgements suggest that this is because the author is part of a Christian milieu where these wouldn't be acceptable topics, which is why, even though there's no suggestion that the character is the kind of person who wouldn't do these things on moral principle, he nevertheless doesn't do them. It doesn't seem to occur to him to get money by gambling (he gets it by pool hustling at one point, but he takes pride in not using his abilities to cheat), and so he remains down and out throughout the book. Good for the depressive, hopeless atmosphere, not so good for the suspension of disbelief.

On the other hand, he doesn't seem to be very bright. It takes him a long time to realise that he's being taken back to the beginning of the year at the end of every year, and to expect that. It takes him even longer to work out that the people he saved in one version of the year don't remain saved in another version, where he went somewhere else and wasn't there to save them. It takes him decades to figure this out, even though it's patently obvious and he supposedly researches time travel obsessively at one point.

His character arc remains flat for a long, long time, too. Whiny loser, whiny loser, whiny loser, whiny loser... gets it together and tries to figure out how to fix things, which takes him another 200-odd years (quickly skipped through in narration near the end of the book). And how does he finally get it together? Well, jumping acts like an addiction for him, and he falls in, by complete coincidence, with a drug-rehab program, and goes through it and gets "clean", and doesn't jump for a while. And then the plot requires him to jump a lot, but it's not a problem for him anymore. Which is not how addiction works.

Unfortunately, a lot of what happens appears to happen because the plot requires it, not because it's what the character would do. And I'm sorry, but someone who doesn't get over themselves in 179 years isn't going to suddenly get over themselves. Anyone capable of remaining broken-hearted over the loss of his one true love for that long (and more than twice that long) is... well, let's say "hard to believe". The timescale is far too extended. Forty years rather than 400 would have been more believable.

Time travel is hard to do well. You have to manage the paradoxes and the spaghetti of the timelines really carefully. The premise of this book made that part potentially much easier, but failed, for me, to create a coherent or convincing narrative or depict a character I wanted to spend more time with; spent far too long wallowing in depression; finished with an unlikely resolution; and, along the way, was littered with basic prose errors.

I wanted to give it three stars, because it's an earnest try and it did manage to keep my attention for the whole book. To be fair to other authors to whom I've given three stars, though, it has to be two, with a note that it's kind of two and a half.

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