Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Indie Book Review: Liberation at 50 Paces

As regular readers of this blog know, I've got a soft spot for westerns. Something about the archetypical dusty town out west where good versus evil gets settled with six guns makes me very happy. And I've also got a fondness for steampunk.

So, Liberation at 50 Paces, a western steampunk short story, was set perfectly to make me a very happy reader. Not only do we have the dusty town and a duel, but there's also pitch perfect western voice. Oh yes, very happy Keryl over here.

Now, full disclosure time here. I know and like Jarod Crews. He didn't ask me for a review, nor did he read this before it went live.

Okay, now that's out of the way, let's talk about Liberation.

First off, it's a novelette. Though, being of an old-school turn of mind, I'd call it a short story. Either way, we're talking about an hour or so of easy reading.

People who are wary of short stories often complain about the fact that it's hard to really get to know a character in such a tiny bit of space. And I'll admit, as a writer, I consider that the number one challenge for writing a short story. There are a number of tricks for how to get character across quickly, foremost among them a distinctive voice, and in Liberation, Crews absolutely nailed the voice.

Less than five paragraphs in you feel like you know Hanson, (the main character) because his voice is so clear, so perfectly unique. Honestly, and this probably says as much about my geek cred as Crews' writing style, the western voice was so well done, when I was reading, I could hear Nathan Fillion's Malcolm Reynolds speaking.

For short stories, plot is often the next level of concern. Many short stories don't really have one. They're more prose poems than actual tales. And, while I'm a character reader, I do have to have something happen to keep me enjoying a tale.

I was pleased to see there was a distinct plot arc for Liberation. At first glance, the plot is fairly generic. Boy meets beautiful girl, boy falls into insta-love with beautiful girl, boy does something stupid for girl, girl's very powerful husband is understandably upset about the whole thing. And I'll admit, I was starting to get worried that this was going to be a great character trapped in a blah story, and then Crews pulled out a fabulous twist at the end, making me very, very happy.

Do I have quibbles about this? Sure. (When don't I?)

The story revolves around the idea of freedom. And that's a great theme, especially for a Western. Still, I would have liked to have seen more done with it. Hanson lives in a slave trading town, which he hates. It's a symbol for both Hanson's personal feelings of being bound, and also a meta for how damaged and constraining the world this story is set in is. Yes, this is a short story, but a thousand or so more words would have fully cemented this theme into place and given us a bit more concrete motivation for Hanson's actions.

The steampunk aspect of this story is just setting. It's cool setting, with some really interesting gizmos that are fabulous, but, nothing about it is vitally important to the plot. This could have been written as a straight western set in Texas in 1859 and would have worked just as well.

Lastly, I'm not entirely sure how old Hanson is. I know he's over sixteen (his sixteenth birthday gets mentioned). But he veers from acting very childish to very adult. His father refers to him as a boy. His voice sounds adult (most of the time). He's certainly gotten himself into a very adult situation.  I guess the reason this bothers me is that the voice I hear speaking in my mind is that of a full adult, and then he turns around and does something that seems suitable for a teenager.

As I said, quibbles.

On the whole, this is a very fine bit of short story writing. It's well worth the hour of reading time.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Character Interview: Six

I'd been looking forward to getting to know Six a bit better since I first saw the cover of her novel. It's gripping, to say the least. And honestly, I'm a little intimidated. An angel out of Hell come to earth to battle creatures that destroy human souls, I know when I'm out of my depth. But there's something about the eyes in that picture, something I wanted to get to know more about.

After a bit of footwork, I find myself in Atlanta, sitting in an apartment across a kitchen table from a shy-looking woman who is, actually, a bit on the ordinary side. Jeans, T-shirt, strong, attractive features, but there's nothing that shouts ANGEL about her. (I'd kind of been hoping for wings, but I guess they don't exactly blend. Apparently they are tucked away.)

Her voice is soft and eye contact fleeting as we get to know each other. But as she warms up and gets a little less self-concious through the interview, I see flashes of a brilliant lady getting the lay of the land in a new place.

KR: How did you meet your author?

S: I banged on the inside of her head until she agreed to write my story. At my nagging, she dropped another project to focus on me.

KR: Do you think your author is doing a good job of capturing who you are?

S: Absolutely. I'm not an easy person to get along with. I admit that I can be moody and bitter. My author doesn't seem to mind. She writes me just the way I am.

KR: What was your favorite scene in the book? Least favorite scene?

S: My favorite scene was when I visited a human bar. The bar owner had a beautiful, lopsided smile. He smelled like mint--fresh and earthy. I liked him.

My author has asked me not to discuss my least favorite scene. I wouldn't normally take commands from her, but she promised to let me stay out of Hell for a while if I agreed. She's on my bad side right now.

KR:  Are you hoping for a sequel?

S: I've already demanded a sequel. My author promised me that the next book will be longer. It's a bigger story and will take more pages to tell. I'll give you a hint: All those demons and monsters who escaped from Hell before me are tired of hiding. They're stronger and scarier than humans, and they won't be happy unless they're causing trouble.
KR: If you could change anything in the book, what would it be?

S: I'd make the big decisions faster. Going from Hell to Earth was a tough transition. In Hell, I learned to accept the bad stuff because that's all there was. I had a hard time breaking out of that pattern when I got to Earth. People got hurt as a result. I didn't want that.
KR: What's your favorite food?

S: Bacon! So crispy and greasy. I don't know what Heaven is like, but I bet there's bacon there.

KR: You and me both, Six. So, If they ever make a movie of your book, who is playing you? If there is ever an audiobook, who do you want to do your voice?

S: I don't know who would do my voice, but I'd like Megalyn Echikunwoke ( to play me in a movie. She plays tough women who are both sensitive and screwed up. She suits me!

KR: Now that the book is done, what's next for you?

S: Look out for the sequel. I'll continue to find my role on Earth and discover who I want to be. And of course, I'll be fighting bad guys!
We wrap our conversation, and I head back out into the Atlanta summer. I wonder briefly if part of the appeal of Atlanta to Six is the heat, does it feel somewhat familiar to her, but don't turn around to ask. 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Meet Constance

Constance Pruitt (Hellen Grace, Kate Chase, and many, many other names) is just a typical vampire. Except for the snark and hunting and eating other vamps. She agreed to do this interview because I promised her I'd write a story with a Vlad in it for her.

KR: So, thanks for the interview.

CP: No problem. You realize you're talking to yourself, right?

KR: I had noticed that. Though we do have different voices.

CP: True.

KR: Want to tell them all a little about Hunter's Tales?

CP: Hmmmm... Well, let's see... If I don't talk about it, what happens?

KR: I write a story where you have to go back to high school, and just sit through hour after hour of calculus.

CP: Hunter's Tales is a series of short stories about me. The one that's out now (and free on 5/25 and 5/26 here) is about my latest trip to high school.

KR: Aren't you over 350? What are you doing in high school?

CP: I like to hunt other vampires. We're a tasty breed. Prey animals are all twitchy and nervous, makes them sort of bitter. But vamps are top predators. They don't think anything is stalking them, so they're pretty relaxed, makes them taste better. Plus there's nothing more fun than hunting something that's as strong, as smart, and as fast as you are. On top of that turning the tables on something that thinks it's invulnerable adds an extra bit of fun to the hunt.

KR: It's been a while since I was in high school, but I don't remember it being a hot bed of vampiric activity. So, why high school?

CP: It wasn't back when you were there. But thanks to Joss, Stephanie, and the Vampire Diaries lady (I can never remember her name.) the teeny boppers are all Yay! Vampires! and trying to find an immortal love of the ages with their very own Cullen.

KR: I take it you don't approve.

CP: Just a tad. The Cullen wannabes... (Constance shudders.) I consider it an honor and a duty as a vamp to destroy any undead twit sprinkling himself with glitter so he'll sparkle properly.

Look, vamps aren't stupid, and a lot of them are pretty lazy. The easier food is to get, the better. So some of them have decided high school is a great place to find a compliant, steady feed. Someone who will provide them with a long term snack and adore them unconditionally. I like to go in, look like that girl, and then, when he's sure I'm ready to be let in on his "big secret" and made into a snack, I turn the tables on him.

It's fun.

KR: So you don't eat humans?

CP: Rarely. A vamp hunt may take long time, and I might get peckish, but for the most part these days I just eat vamps.

KR: So, you're what, a cross between Blade and Hannibal Lecter?

CP: You wrote me. Am I?

KR: Well, I'd say you're somewhere between Sherlock Holmes (the new version with Benedict Cumberbatch), Hannibal Lecter, and Dexter, with a Burn Notice sort of story structure.

CP: I can see that.

KR: Who's the guy on the cover? Is he a "Cullen?"

CP: Do you see any sparkles? Let's just say, he's what's makes this next high school interesting.

KR: Ahhh... Well, thanks for the interview. I think everyone has a bit of an idea of who you are.

CP: (Smirking) No problem. Out of curiosity, do you talk to yourself regularly?

KR: I'm an author. I talk to myself all the time.

CP: So this sort of thing isn't abnormal for you?

KR: Nope.

If you'd like to get to know Constance better, Hunter's Tales is available for free today on Amazon.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Indie Book Review: The Converted

A man with a dark past escapes to a new land hoping for a new life and atonement for past sins. Welcome to one of the great Western tropes. Many careers have been made on this basic plot, and I'm thinking C. R. Hindmarsh, author of The Converted, might be one of them as well.

Hindmarsh adds some new twists to the tale; it's not precisely a Western, in that it appears to be set in a fantasy world.  But it's a fantasy world with trains, guns, a mostly 1880s tech level, wilderness, Indians (Skia), and a powerful elite. There's even the local mayor who stands up to the rampaging savages, soldiers who don't really know what's going on where they are, and a stand off at a public hanging.

So, all in all, everything everyone loves about Westerns are in this book. If it takes place in New Alania instead of Wyoming, well, who really cares?

The twist, instead of a dark past of Civil War crimes (or heroics) our Dark Hero was a failed geneticist, whose experiments killed a slew of children.

It's a good twist. Everything other than the genetics looks pretty well set for the 1880s, but the rich and powerful have figured out how to vert (convert) genes and are walking around with different colors, different skin types (scales for example). It's not so much that the powerful have more money, they're practically a different species by the time this story gets going.

But of course, there's a dark secret involving the verts and the rich and powerful. And it's the job of the hero to get to the bottom of it and seek redemption along the way.

The cast of characters is wide enough to cover almost all of the basic Western roles. There was no whore with a heart of gold, but I think that was the only one who was missing.  They are competently drawn, interesting, and worth following.

This is a tidy and solid western. (Even if it looks a little different.)  If the drifter, one step ahead of the law, rides into town, finds things aren't the way they should be, grows a spine and a conscience, and then, with the aid of a few new friends, goes in and saves the day, overthrowing the corrupting influence is your idea of a good time, go read The Converted, you will enjoy it.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Story Teller's Art: The Cabin In The Woods

Okay, so it's not much of a secret that I think Joss Whedon is one of the greatest working story tellers.  Now, sure, he uses mainly visual media, but we novelists can still learn quite a bit from what he's doing.

Specifically, we can learn from The Cabin in the Woods, which is not just an absolutely brilliant bit of cinema, but it's also a really fine bit of storytelling. (Go see it if you haven't, and take notes.)

So, let's talk about the structure used in The Cabin in the Woods and why you should keep it in mind as you write.

It begins with the title sequence, and this is the equivalent of the preface in a novel. It's just a few images, but they are nicely symbolic of the main conflict and what is going to come.

Now, of course, as writers, we can't just whip up a few images and some evocative music and let that do the job for us. But we can produce a scene that, if it does it's job, not only gives us a bit of information that doesn't neatly fit into the rest of the storyline, but is also a good symbol for how the rest of the story goes.

Good authors are fine with the whole information-that-doesn't-quite-fit part. But in the hands of a great story teller that preface will symbolize the whole story (or mood of the story, or theme of the story, you get my drift) in one tight scene. The balancing act is doing it so you give a good allusion of what is coming, but not giving the whole thing away.

Next we move onto what would be chapter one in a story.

I've seen 'how to write' sites that say your first page/chapter should introduce your main character and lay out at least the foundations for your main conflict. (They especially say this of YA books.)

To this I say, "Bollocks!"  How many of us have read sad little books where page one is: "Hi, my name is Blah. I'm the main character. Here's what's going to happen." I've read it. I know you have. Resist this temptation. It's a writing class 101, novels for dummies, technique.

Your first bit should introduce an important character, place, or theme. (And yes, this may indeed be the main character, but it doesn't have to be.) It has to be interesting. And it should set the tone. That's it. We do not need a massive plot dump on page one. We don't need the first paragraph to be a description of the Hero or main setting.

Cabin starts with a secondary character talking about how his wife is baby-proofing the house, even though they've only just started fertility treatments. It gives us a view of one of the places where the action will take place. But what it does more than anything else in those first few seconds is establish the fact that the movie will be funny and that there will be something going on besides the traditional five kids go into the woods thing. We get tone, and a hint of what may be coming.
Then it move onto introducing the main characters.

And then, finally, we get to the location for the main action.

Likewise, other very successful novelists have used this technique to good effect. Remember Harry Potter?  Yeah?  Okay, the first section of the first chapter is all about the Dursleys. Hogwarts doesn't even show up for over 100 pages. Can you imagine how flat Harry would have been if JKR had taken the first page advice?  Yeah, not so cool.

Next up is what Jim Butcher, of Dresden Files fame calls the "murky middle."  This is where most of the action goes and where tension comes into it's main power. And tension, that wonderful trick of the writer's art, is what makes readers keep turning pages.

What Whedon does so well, and what many of us in writer land need to work on, is building tension in a stair step manner.

Imagine, if you will, a graph. On the vertical side you have tension. On the horizontal side you have plot. In most stories the resulting line will be a fairly straight diagonal with a sharp drop off after the climax of the story. Some of these diagonals will be very vertical, lots of tension, not a whole lot of plot (this would be your traditional horror story) some are almost a flat line (this would be any story that is too predictable). But most of us will have some sort of diagonal or curve.

Whedon has something that looks like a set of stairs. Moments of just fun plot. Moments of sheer tension. Some little diagonal bits in between.  Now, the reason he does this and we all go Yippiee! is that he allows us to breathe and moves the plot forward.

Lots of times you run into the issue where an author wants to slow down the tension a bit, but forgets to keep the story moving forward. Anytime you've read a romance where the action stops dead so the characters can gaze longingly at each other, you've seen how that works. Or if you prefer, an action flick where everything stops for the completely unnecessary sex scene with the clunky dialog (I'm looking at you, Conan!).

Readers like down time. They especially like a little downtime before the big push to the climax. But the point of down time is to give them a chance to calm down before rehooking them into the cannot-put-it-down action. It's not a very effective use of a breather if you have to abandon the plot to do it. Joss remembers to keep his plot moving, while giving the viewer a safe place to catch his breath and calm down for a few moments before ratcheting things up.

On top of that, by using this pattern of action interspersed with calm, and a setting for each, Whedon provides the viewer with an expectation of what will happen at any given time, so when we hit the climax and he twists that expectation, we're squeeing with joy amid the mayhem of the movie.

We can do this, too. It just takes attention to detail, plot, and the intelligent crafting of theme to go with the different scenes in our stories.

Okay, I hope that dissection was useful.  Any of you seen a movie/read a book lately that you thought was a really good map of how to build a story?  Tell me about it in the comments.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Fantasy Sage: Finding Your Club

I was recently writing about looking at genre as a collection of clubs you can use for marketing your book. If you play by the rules, you get access to the members of that club and can encourage them to read your work.

The tricky bit is finding which club you belong to.  Now, there are tons of genres out there, so I'm not about to go and try to define them all. I will however, link to a collection of genre descriptions.  Because Wikipedia has an article on everything!   Good long list with Sci Fi and Horror sub genres as well.  Tons of good info here.

Okay, Keryl, I went, I read, I found that I wrote a Romantic Fantasy in an Arcanepunk world.  What can I do with that?  It's not like that's on the category list at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

True. Most booksellers aren't quite that precise in their genre categories.

What you can do with this is find communities that like what you write. You can use this to home in  on blogs that write about what you write (or better yet, review it!). You can search for groups on Goodreads, Shelfari, Librarything, etc that focus specifically on your sort of work.

In a nutshell: once you know which club you can enter, you can go find the members.

When you are marketing something as specific as a book, you do not want to cast a wide net. Spamming everyone on Earth about your book is not only a waste of time, it annoys readers. (And you don't want annoyed readers.) You want happy readers who are already primed to like what you wrote. Finding them, and dangling your book in front of them maximizes the likelihood of not just a sale, but a good review as well.

So, hope that was helpful!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Indie Book Review: An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom: Son in Sorrow

A while back, I reviewed An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom: Lovers and Beloveds. And I really enjoyed it.  It was a glorious mix of epic politics and an erotic coming of age that just made me happy all the way through. Did I have some quibbles? Sure, but they were minor, and the whole thing was just a lovely book.

Recently, MeiLin Miranda sent me book two in the series, Son in Sorrow, and I'm happy to say, I love this one. Lovers and Beloveds was a good, solid, first book, and Son in Sorrow is even better.

These books cover so much and so deeply they are hard to categorize, but I'll try. These are the stories of what it takes to go from being a boy to a man to a king.There are scads of boy-turns-into-man stories out there, and usually they just scratch the surface, as if making a few hard decisions and killing monsters is enough to do the job. It's not. And Miranda does a brilliant job showing this.

These stories deal with not just the idea of making hard decisions, but also the soft ones, the ones that look easy on the surface but ripple outward over the years. In Lovers and Beloved the joys, erotic and emotional, of love were studied. In Son in Sorrow, the pain of love lost, jealousy, and the desire for revenge are on the menu.

This is love bound by the larger world filled with political intrigue. It's not enough that Temmin, now twenty, has to sort himself out, but he must do it on a grand stage as the Heir of a mighty kingdom, in the eyes of everyone and with scores of men out to plot his downfall.

Like Lovers, Son in Sorrow is filled with first rate world building. This reads as a history of a real world, just one you've never met before.  Like Lovers, the story in story technique is used to great effect as a way to help young Temmin understand what he needs to know to help grasp at least some of what is going on around him.

Unlike Lovers, Son in Sorrow spends more time with the secondary characters. Plot threads only hinted at in Lovers get picked up, taken along for a quick tantalizing visit, and then left to germinate. Characters who flitted in and out of Lovers get their own screen time, and I'm eagerly awaiting to see where they go. A few new ones pop up as well, and seeing how well Miranda has done with the first two books, I'm happily anticipating and debating where they'll come in later in the story and how.

This is an author who does her homework. The Greater History is a complex and EPIC tale, and so far, more than 600 pages into the series we're still meeting new characters, learning new history, and setting up what is going to be an absolute corker of a tale. Yet, with the fact that this is all set up for a greater story, the bits we've already gotten do not feel unimportant or rushed. There's no sense of the author biding her time, just waiting for all the characters to get into place. This planning for the grand show to come is just as important, and interesting, as what I hope will be heading our way in the future.

So, that said, out you get for a copy of Lovers and Beloveds and Son in Sorrow. Read them! Then bookmark Miss Miranda's page so that you can get in on the next one as soon as it's out. It will be well worth your time.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fantasy Sage: Genre Is Your Friend

You've written your story, you've polished it until it shines like a gem in full sunlight, you've got cover art, a website, and you're sitting in front of your computer, filling in the publication information, staring at the little line that asks you what categories your story belongs in.

For many of us, this is the acid moment, the second where we have to finally declare what genre our story is.

Some of us have it easy. You've written a three hundred page story with one main character and two secondary characters about a war between the elves and dwarves. You click fantasy, and head onto the next question.

But a lot of us don't fit easily into one block or another. What if you've got a story set half in the real world, half in a steam-punk alternative reality, and there's a romance in there between a vampire and a fairy. Is that Steam Punk, Urban Fantasy, or Paranormal Romance?

So, you sit there, finger hovering over the mouse, debating which to pick. As you sit there, you start to get annoyed, why pick a genre? The stupid things are just nasty and constraining. You're an artist, telling the story the way it needed to be told. Only half-baked hacks write for a particular genre. And who the hell gets to determine what makes a genre? Who says a Romance has to have a happy ending? And why do Epic Fantasies have to be set somewhere other than Earth?

Well, maybe you didn't do that.  I did. I was pretty annoyed that I had written this brilliant work, and it didn't quite fit. And trying to shoehorn it into categories that didn't really fit bothered me.

Time and talking to readers has changed my opinion. I am no longer in a snit about genres.

Here's the thing: genre does not exit for you. It's for the readers. Readers want to read certain sorts of books. They like different types of plots, settings, character types, and endings.

Genre is a marketing tool that allows you to find the readers who like the sorts of things you write. And the number one thing to keep in mind about being a successful writer is that you've got to find your market. Genre is the first step in targeting the people who want to read your book.

Imagine, if you will, a group of clubs. Each club has members, and the members all agree on the same things. One club wants stories that focus on the building of a relationship, with some sort of magical aspect, and a happy ending. This is the Paranormal Romance Club, and if you write a story that follows those rules, you can have access to the members of that club. The PR Club has cliques: some of them like erotic romances, some like chaste romances, some like elves, some like vampires, some like fairies. Follow the rules of the clique, and you can get access to those members as well.

Now, if you've not followed the rules, but barged into the club anyway, you're going to annoy the members. They are going to start writing bad reviews of your book. Remember, for most of us, the way we are going to sell books is to make readers happy, and then they tell other people about the book, and on and on. Give the readers what they don't want, and you'll soon find your writing career torpedoed.

Lucky for you and me, there's an almost limitless number of clubs out there. The work is finding which ones will welcome you, and then working with them. It's much easier to get people who want what you wrote to like it than it is to convince people who are looking for something else that they want your book.

Let's put it this way: if you are selling Orange Juice, it's not helpful to label it Diet Soda and hope that when people taste it they'll be so blown away that they decide they want it anyway. It's a much better plan to make up a big Orange Juice label, and then go hang out in the Citrus section of the Fruit Juice aisle. If you're feeling like cross promoting, go over to the Fruit section and let them know what you've got there.

Same thing with genres. No matter how brilliant your romance is, if it doesn't have a happy ending, you don't get access to the Romance Club (and if you barge in, you aren't doing yourself any favors). You need to go find the Love Story Club, Women's Fiction Club, Chick Lit Club, or something else that fits and go there. That way you'll have happy reader, writing great reviews, and spreading the good word about your story.

So, genre is your friend; it's just your job to go off and find which ones you belong in. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fantasy Sage: Point of View

An issue I often see writers struggle with is point of view. Not just what it is, but how to use it to it's best advantage. So let's talk about it. Why is this important? After all, POV isn't generally something we plan out in advance. We start writing and whatever is there, that's the POV, right? Well, if you're hoping to keep your reader skipping about happily in your story, they've got to be able to figure out what's going on and when and with whom. Keeping your POVs straight will make this a lot easier.

So, first off, what are the options:

First Person: I went to the kitchen for breakfast. 

You've got the basic idea. This is the point of view where you are slipping into a main character suit, wearing his skin, and going about his life. You are in his head, thinking his thoughts, feeling his feelings, and doing his job.

Second Person: You drink a glass of milk, put the half-full glass of milk in the cupboard, and then wonder what the hell you were doing.

This is where the author is telling the reader something from the reader's POV.  This POV is usually a sign of literary fiction. I can't for the life of me think of a single well-known fantasy tale in this POV. So, it's not that you can't do it, it's just that almost no one does.

Third Person Limited: He went out for breakfast, after passing his roommate who was taking milk out of the cupboard.

This is the handi-cam view. Your reader sees, hears, and does everything the POV character does, like he's watching a live feed from a little camera perched on the character's shoulder.

Third Person Omniscient: By nine o'clock, all of the members of the Aching house had finished breakfast.

This is the narrator's voice, or the God voice. You know everything, see everything, and can reveal anything. Think of a TV show, where the camera is hopping about showing you whatever it likes, this is the literary equivalent of that.

Now, just about everyone can write first person without any issues. It's pretty easy to tell when you've slipped out of it.

I saw John walk across the street.

Look, there's Bob, thought John.

Just about all of us, even in full on editing induced blindness, can twig to the slip there.

And almost no one writes fantasy in Second Person, so we'll just ignore that.

For most of us we start to get tripped up in 3rd Person. Often the issue is we think we're writing 3rd Person Omni, but what we're really doing is hopping about from one 3rd Limited POV to the next. This annoys readers and make it difficult for them to follow the story.

This is 3rd Omni:

The sun rose brilliantly over Summer Valley, just like it had every day since the dawn of time. Birds chirped in the branches, proclaiming their personal territory to all who would listen. John sat back, thinking about the wonderful beauty of the world he lived in. Bob, on the other hand, was wishing the birds would shut the hell up. Due to imbibing seventeen mojitos the night before, he was feeling a wee bit tender in the head.

This is Head Hopping:

John watched the sun rise brilliantly over Summer Valley. He basked in sunlight and the lovely sounds of chirping birds. This is so beautiful!

I want to kill myself. Shut up birds, shut up, shut up! God, how many of those mojito things did I have last night? Bob collapsed into the chair next to John, scowling at him and the world in general.

How do you know if you're head hopping? Third Omni requires a narrator's voice. If there's nothing in your story that's not being directly experienced by one of the characters, you are not writing Third Omni.

Okay, so we've got a handle on what the tools are. Let's talk about how to use them.

I break stories into three main categories when it comes to POV balancing: Single, Ensemble, or Epic.

A Single story is pretty simple. You follow one POV all the way through. A book that follows this pattern is set in First Person or Third Limited. You're either in the head of the main character, or hovering behind him, seeing and doing what he sees and does.

This technique is good for straightforward stories, the sort where your main character is involved with everything that needs to happen, so he can tell the entire story.

First person especially is good for stories where you're really working on focusing on one character's arc. You're in his head the whole time, so you can really get into him. Third Limited works better in stories where you want a little distance between your reader and main character.

A Single POV line is not so hot for anything with multiple plot lines or multiple main characters.

This isn't to say that this sort of story doesn't have secondary or tertiary characters. But they aren't vitally important to the story.  Harry Dresden is a very good, and very complex example of a Single POV. He's the star of the books and the story is all about him. There are secondary characters (Bob) but the story won't collapse without them.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, takes us into the next category, the Ensemble.

In an Ensemble you've got a main character (maybe two, rarely three, and if you've got four you're writing an Epic), and a collection of vitally important secondary characters. For an ensemble Third Limited and Third Omni are your friends. The main character is the POV character. Maybe (rarely) the author wanders off to a new POV if something vitally important is about to happen that the readers just have to know about.

To use a TV reference:  If you're writing NCIS, you need a Gibbs. All of your characters together are magic, but there still needs to be someone to lead the team. You can wander off for a bit and focus the story through the other characters, but you always come back to the main character (s) in the end.

But Keryl, I've got seventeen characters, all telling the story, and no main character. Okay, Harry Turtledove, this is where Epic comes in. You've got a ton of characters and you swap between their POVs. But, each time you switch to a new POV character there's a separate storyline with it's own main and supporting characters. (Here's a hint: if in chapters 3, 8, 19, 34, and 45 John is the POV character; he's a secondary, non-POV character in chapters 7, 14, 22, and 48; he gets mentioned a few times in 4, 16, 44, and 60 by yet other POV characters, you're writing an Epic.)

If you are writing an Epic, stick to one POV per section. Each section has a complete bit of plot: John finds the Chalice of Epicness. Tell that section from John's POV. The next section has a complete bit of plot: Bob responds to John finding the Chalice. Write that section from Bob's POV.  Do not write finding the Chalice of Epicness from John, Bob, Phil, Andrew, and Collin's POVs in one section. (Of course you've got a ton of characters finding the Chalice of Epicness, it's an EPIC!)

With an Epic you are following the story of a collection of characters. At the end of your tale you should be able to take all the bits of plot for each character and construct a complete storyline for that character. That storyline weaves in with the other storylines to make your full Epic. Think DragonLance: Tanis has a story, Raistlin has a story, Sturm, Laurana, Tasslehoff, ect... all have their own stories. Put all those stories together and you've got the Chronicles.

Epic generally run Third Person Limited.  Third Omni, unless you really work the narrator's voice, will be confusing in a story with a ton of equally important characters. First person in an Epic is just asking your readers to kick you. If you've got seventeen characters and they're all telling the story using I, me, and we, your readers will have a hard time following them.

Now, are these written in stone? Did Moses drop this tablet off at my house, telling me to go forth and spread the good word about POV? No.

Just like with everything else, you can break any and all of the rules. There are always trends and styles that will bend these rules. (For example, Third Omni with an actual narrator who is almost a character works well with Steampunk because it stylistically hearkens back to the writing of the Victorian era. But it's significantly less appealing in a gritty, modern set Urban Fantasy.) But keep in mind, if you want to write good (and once again I mean good in the sense of able to satisfy a large majority of the people who buy your book) fiction, making it easy for your readers to follow the story is more important than really cool POV swapping technique.

Happy Writing!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Indie Book Review: Prophecy Of Kings: The Trilogy

Prophecy of Kings: The Trilogy got added to the To Be Read list after seeing a 'Please Review My Book' thread on Amazon. I read the first chapter, it looked good, and onto the list it went.

Months later (because I'm not setting any speed records for book reviewing) I picked it back up again.

I didn't finish the trilogy.

I read all the way through the first book, and it's okay. There's nothing terribly wrong with the story or the plot. But it's not great, and the characters didn't do much for me. It's a very basic, generic high fantasy: A Young Prince With A Destiny teams up with the Recovering Alcoholic Warrior. They both get roped into a dubious quest by The Dark Mage. Eventually they're befriended by The Good Elf. There's an overarching plot involving the return of Great Evil and a lesser quest plot to see about Finding The Good That Can Save Us From Great Evil. Mostly though, book one sets the scene and introduces characters.

If that plot and those character types are your idea of a good time, grab a copy of this, you'll like it.

As for me, I'm a fan of character driven plot. And I like my characters smart. They can start off innocent and trusting (stupid), but they've got to have a pretty quick learning curve. It absolutely kills me to watch characters make the same mistakes over and over and over.

Which is part of why I drug through this book, reading a page or two at a time and feeling no compelling need to keep going. Kaplyn, The Prince With A Destiny, doesn't ever seem to learn anything. Now, by the end of Legacy of the Eldrich (Book One) that slow learning curve has bitten him, badly. So my hope is that in Dragon Riders (Book Two) he's finally learning. But I wasn't hopeful enough to do more than skim the first few chapters of Dragon Riders.

The world building is okay. Not great, not terrible. It's a pretty standard medieval-esque world filled with standard fantasy critters. The magical system was slightly off the beaten track, with the Dark Mage (technically a sorcerer) gaining his power by working with demons. The Elves (Alvalah) are all albinos, but besides that, they're the standard forest-dwelling, nature-loving, vegetarians.  There's a tiny bit of politics, but it's forgotten about nineteen sentences after it gets brought up.

The formatting and proofing is okay. It's not great. In my copy random squares pop up in the text. Why? I have no idea. It doesn't look like some sort of bad translation of a non-standard character. They're between words, not in the middle of them. It's not every page, or even every chapter, but it is often enough to make an impression. The proofing needed help, too. Mostly punctuation issues, the sort of thing that if you're into the story you don't notice, but if you're already dragging through it, sticks out big time.

The writing is (Are you sensing a theme, yet?) okay. It's competent. I'll forgive a lot for gloriously sparkling snark infested dialog, and that just wasn't there. And I'm always happy to see beautiful word choice, and that wasn't there, either. Once again, it's not bad, there's nothing terribly wrong with any of this. But there was nothing about the writing that made me want to keep turning pages, either.

On a story edit side, I'd say the Quest For Good to Save Us plot line could have used some more urgency. We're told the Great Evil will be showing up in sixty years. Which isn't precisely the sort of timeline that makes readers want to go ripping through the pages to see if the good guys save the day in the nick of time. We get some more urgency toward the end, which helps.

There's a nice almost twist at the end. Alert readers probably know it's coming from about the 80% mark, but the characters are genuinely surprised.  Actually the end is the best bit of the book, but slogging through 200 pages to get to the decent twenty pages didn't thrill me. And I'll admit that I'm still a bit fuzzy on what precisely happened in the end. Not that I can't tell you what happened in a blow by blow sort of way. I'm fuzzy on what precisely one of the characters thought he was doing at the end and why.

So, all in all, it's okay.  I didn't hate it. I didn't love it. I know fantasy readers come in many, many flavors, and this is a story that will appeal to some of them. Just not me.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Indie Book Review: Each Angel Burns

I ended up reading Each Angel Burns by Kathleen Valentine because of the debate as to whether or not it was a "Catholic" novel. A while back it was reviewed on a Catholic fiction site and the reviewer didn't think it was much of a Catholic novel. This resulted in some discussion and controversy. Now, while it's true that I'm not wildly qualified to judge this, I'm not any sort of literary scholar, I do know basic Catholic theology and I like to read. So onto the To Be Read list it went. Months later, I'm adding my two cents to the pot.

But before we get into that, let's talk about it as just a novel.

As a novel it is elegant and graceful, with characters I enjoyed and a writing style that mirrored the gentle souls of the main characters.

The story line is... meandering... and honestly I could have handled a few less detours from the main plot. None of them are terrible or badly written, but one in particular made me want to yell, "No, Valentine...the main plot, stick to the main plot!"  I truly enjoyed these characters and wanted to spend time with them, but by the time we were reaching the climax of the story, the fine eddies of extra storyline were getting on my nerves.

Almost all of the main action takes place in flashbacks. And once again, they aren't badly written, but they do add a distance from the events, and I would have liked the immediacy of going through most of the main plot points first hand. One of the flashbacks I completely understand, and fully see it's value. But most of the rest of them followed the pattern of the main story moving ahead a day or two, then one of the characters would remember the night before. In that sort of case, there wasn't much need for the flashback.

It's a little rough on the proofreading front. As any of my regular readers know, I've seen much, much, much worse recently, but I wouldn't call it a clean copy, either.  Call it a solid B effort for proofing.

So, all in all, as a novel, I liked it. I read it in two days, and when I wasn't reading I was thinking about it. That, to me, is a sign of a good novel.

So, it's a good novel, but is it a Catholic novel?  It depends on what makes a Catholic Novel a Catholic Novel. I'd say it's a novel decorated with Catholicism, but not actually a Catholic novel.

It's certainly dressed in the physical details of Catholic life. Most of it is set in a deconsecrated convent. And like the convent most of the characters were, once upon a time, Catholic, but no longer practicing in any meaningful way. There are still the trappings of a Catholic life, but, with one exception, the spark of faith that makes those trappings alive has long left these people. At one point, one of the characters says, "We're meant to be Catholic..." and I think that's a good way of looking at it.  Not, 'we are Catholic,' but 'we're meant to be Catholic.'

I'll take this one step farther with the actually Catholic character, a priest named Pete. In his own personal journey, I can see flashes of Catholic thought and ideas, but in the way he interacts with the other main characters, his best friend, Gabe, and his one time love, Maggie, there is nothing distinctly Catholic about his actions. When it comes to how he deals with his friends, he could have just as easily been a Pastor, and much more easily been a Rabbi.

In fact, besides Father Pete's sexual identity in relation to his faith, and the setting, there's nothing specifically Christian about this story, let alone Catholic. If there was anything in this book specifically relating to salvation by Jesus, I missed it. I'd say the only concrete theological idea espoused by this story is: where love is, there is God also. That's an idea that's not difficult to place in any given tradition.

For me, the question of the 'Catholicness', let alone Christianity, of this novel comes from the actions of the Father Pete.  Pete is a compelling character, one I'd very much enjoy sitting down to dinner with, and not because he's described as the most gorgeous man in the history of maleness. Not to say I'd mind that, but I digress... He's a scholar, a dedicated servant of God, a man of intellectual depth and vibrancy, and a deep, deep well of compassion.

And, while his compassion feels very comforting, it underlies his devotion to his Lord, and if I correctly understand the hierarchical and rigid standards of Catholic theology, undermines it. Given a situation where his best friends are falling in love and committing adultery together, he is pleased for them. Gabe's wife is cheating on him. Maggie's husband is corporeal evil on two legs. Gabe and Maggie are just about perfect for each other. So, for most of us, being pleased at our friends' happiness would be an appropriate response. At least, if we weren't priests.

But Pete is a priest. This is a man who sees his two dearest friends, people he supposedly loves, throwing their souls into mortal peril, and he is pleased for them. Divorce and adultery are great big deals in Catholic theology. Marriage is a sacrament, and breaking that sacrament is a mortal sin. And while separation, and in some cases divorce, are allowable by Catholic doctrine, remarriage without an annulment is not. And, while it's true that in Catholic theology there's no such thing as a direct ticket to hell, moving in with your girlfriend while you're still married to your wife is skating awfully close to the edge of it.

Pete mentions his concern for their souls, once, but his actions: never suggesting Gabe seek marriage counseling or try to reconcile with his wife, let alone suggesting Gabe and Maggie have a chaste relationship, and being willing to officiate Gabe and Maggie's wedding once Gabe's divorce (Annulment is never mentioned either, just Gabe's divorce.) is finalized, shows that he's significantly less worried about their eternal souls than he is for their comfort in this fleeting life.

Beyond that, there is the fact that, by the end of the story we are shown that God clearly approves of all of this as well. If you believe that sex is integral to love, and that wherever love is, there is God, then this book is fine. That would be something that I personally believe. But that's not Catholic theology.

So, perhaps this is a gentle subversion of the Catholic Novel. It is a book that lovingly touches on the accoutrements of Catholicism, but they are only setting. It is a novel that creates an intensely sympathetic priest, who, while living up to the letter of his vows, places more value on this temporal life than the life eternal to come. A man who is more interested in his friends being happy than good.  And there is a version of a God who gives laws, yet smiles when they are broken. I think Valentine's deconsecrated convent is a perfect metaphor for this story: it is beautiful, steeped in traditions and memories that those inside appreciate on an esthetic level, but have no intention of living by.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: In The End

We've talked about plot, and about the promises we make our readers when we publish a story. We've talked about magic and power balance, and how they contribute to the tension that keeps a story going. So now it's time for the end of the story.

Once again, for the sake of simplicity, I'm going to call the major teams of a fantasy novel Team Good, lead by the Hero and Team Evil, lead by the Villain. I recognize that fantasy protagonists and antagonists come in a lot of different shades (Next Post: The Cast) but these terms will do the job for the sake of today's discussion.

Here's the claim that might get a lot of comments: in a straight fantasy, Team Good always wins. The readers do not want to spend however many hundreds, if not thousands, of pages watching Team Good get to the point where it can defeat Team Evil and then lose. Not in the final battle. If Return of the Jedi had ended with the Rebel Alliance being annihilated, and Darth tossing Luke off the bridge while the Emperor cackled in the background, fans would have rioted and Lucas would have never made another movie.

Now for the huge mess of caveats:

Team Good must win is not the same thing as the Hero has to come out alive, or that there is any guarantee of a happy ending for any individual member of Team Good. As long as Team Good wins, or the actions of Team Good assures a future win, you can kill every single member of Team Good and it's still a satisfying end. If you re-wrote the movie Glory and set it with a troop of Dwarves looking to be taken seriously as real members of Elven society, the ending where almost everyone dies, but the first spark of Dwarven equality bursts to light, then the ending works. Likewise, if your Hero comes out of the final battle wounded, disillusioned, broken, having lost everything but his ability to breathe, as long as whatever he was trying to accomplish gets done, all is good.

Team Good must win only applies for the final conflict. You can write a fifteen book series and have Team Evil happily torturing the Hero at the end of the first fourteen of them as long as the Hero triumphs at the end of the last book. Romances demand a Happily Ever After for each book in the series. Fantasy demands that Team Good has to win in the end.

Winning is entirely dependent on how you defined the problem. If the issue is Dark Lordenstein is big, bad, and EVIL, any end where Dark is no longer those things flies. Team Good can kill, convert, imprison, or do any other thing you can imagine to Dark, as long as Dark is out of the picture as the Villain in the end.

You'll probably notice that I'm dealing mostly with the man v. man version of fantasy. Now, while it is true that man v. nature and man v. society do happen in fantasy, they are almost always secondary plot lines or some level of meta problem that's being explored in a micro man v. man setting. But, if you've got it set where your protagonist is fighting all of society, or magic, or whatever external, non-person (using person loosely here, by this I mean a thinking creature, not necessarily human) problem he or his team still has to triumph in the end.

If the problem is societal, like racism, winning can be defined as any step that causes the society at large to seriously consider change, but does not require immediate change. If the fight is the main character versus his nature (he's a werewolf or vampire or whatever) whichever side you've set as the protagonist needs to take the day.

If you've written the sort of epic where there are seventeen main characters, no clear protagonist, and all of them are dingy shades of gray without a Team Good or Team Evil, more power to you, 'cause that's a bugger to write a satisfying ending to. No matter how you end that, someone is going to be pissed because his or her pet character didn't get the ending they were looking for.

Basically, the more clearly defined the problem is, the easier it is to write a good (once again, good is defined as the ability to satisfy the majority of readers) ending.

Okay, so here's the one big exception to this rule: tragedy is an acceptable version of fantasy. There are a few main variations on this where Team Good doesn't win and the readers don't mind.

Tragic Fall: call this Macbeth style fantasy. You're writing about the fall of someone who did something stupid. Usually in this case the Hero is very dark gray if not outright black, but he's still a compelling POV character. These are often morality tales about the love of power and how it destroys people. You can do any horrible thing you want to Hero, and the readers will appreciate it.

The Sacrifice: This is the story where the chance of Team Good winning was one in a million at the beginning of the tale, and it's still one in a million at the end. Call this Les Miserable style fantasy. Everyone knows from page one that this is not going to end well for Team Good, but that they're doing something that will get them all killed because it's important. The story here is about the struggle, character development, and then breaking the reader's hearts by crushing those characters. Usually this ends with the goals of Team Good getting more attention and the possibility of a future win for Team Good, but the immediate Team Good has failed and is dead.

The Anti-Happily Ever After: Romeo and Juliet style star-crossed lovers flies in fantasy as well. But this is usually a microplot. Team Good usually wins whatever it is that's going on in the metaplot, but doing so requires the star-crossed lovers to put each other aside/die. This is tragedy for whichever characters, but the greater Team Good still wins the day. If Romeo and Juliet both die, followed by the Montagues and Capulets immediately going to war and annihilating each other, your readers will feel cheated. The micro tragedy has to have a bigger meaning and value than the immediate characters.

Having read all that, you know what to do, right?  Exactly, do not write the story where everything is going swimmingly, the odds are evening up, the final conflict is looming, and then slaughter all your characters, crushing their goals. If you are writing a tragedy, you need to let your readers know it's coming. By the midpoint of the story you should have several clues and a good bit of foreshadowing in place to let them know things are not going to end well for Team Good. In fact, though I'm not generally a huge fan of the preface/first chapter that shows how the story ended, if you've ever been tempted to use it, when you're writing a tragedy is the time.

Otherwise, set up the plot, even up the power balance, and to quote a wise man, "Have fun stormin' the castle!"

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: Power Balance

In the last Fantasy Sage post, I wrote about the rules of magic in fantasy writing, and in that I mentioned that there was one very specific time when the To Thine Own Magic Be True rule could be broken, as the object of a High Quest, for the purpose of providing a decent power balance in the last conflict.

What is power balance? This is the odds of Team Good or Team Evil winning. This is one of the most important aspects of your novel, because a well done power balance provides the thing that keeps your readers turning pages: tension. Basically, if you stack the deck too far on one side or the other, the tension in your story is shot to pieces, and you end up with bored readers.

So, let's talk about our next rule for good fantasy writing: Thou Shall Balance Power Between Team Good and Team Evil.  Though I'm playing fast and lose with Good and Evil here, Protagonist and Antagonist is probably more accurate, because lots of fantasy readers like a great Anti-Hero, gray Heroes, and darker gray Villains. But let's call them Team Good lead by the Hero and Team Evil lead by the Villain for the sake of amusement.

Now, at the beginning of the story Team Good can have a one-in-a-million shot of winning this thing, but it's got to have that shot. And by the end of the story, you've got to get things close to one to one. If it's still one in a million when you hit the final conflict, you're A: writing a tragedy (Which plays by it's own set of rules, but is an acceptable subset of fantasy. More on this in the In The End post.) or B: your readers will not believe it when Team Good wins.

Once again this is where plot wrangling comes in. Many fantasy novels, when broken down to the most basic plot level work something like this: Team Evil has the power. This is intolerable. Team Good decides to do something about it. Adventure allowing Team Good to make up most of the difference occurs here. Final conflict. Team Good fights hard, looks like all is lost, but triumphs in the end. (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, DragonLance, and on and on and on: they all follow this basic plan.)

The problem is that many writers forget how tension works in a fantasy story. A really bad Team Evil is a lot of fun to write. And many writers are a little too attached to Team Good and make them too strong. But, if the odds are too firmly stacked on either side, the story is boring. If Dark Lordenstein is not only a murderous-paranoid-psychopath, but psychic, with a doomsday weapon, no limits on his magic, and an army of loyal-unto-death Super Ninjas, and the Hero is played by the gangly thirteen-year-old Farm Boy, that's just not good reading. None of us are going to suspend our disbelief far enough to make that work. Likewise if Skippy Von Goodandstrong is playing the role of Hero, and he's well nigh invincible, in addition to handsome, kind to puppies, and just so perfectly perfect, he'll be labeled a Gary Stu before the third chapter is done, and the readers will depart shortly thereafter. In fact, the only way Dark or Skippy is even remotely interesting is if they're facing off against each other in a satire.

There are a lot of lessons we can all learn from Star Wars, here's the first one: Luke Skywalker V. Darth Vader isn't much fun to watch until Luke has his powers and Darth is weakened by doubt about his vocation. Luke V. Darth in Empire is fascinating as a character study, but it was terrifying as a fight. Anyone who was paying attention watched Luke go into that fight and felt their stomach drop. If Luke won the fight it was going to feel like a cheap shot, and if Darth won... Well, before seeing it for the first time, none of us wanted to think about what would happen if Darth won.  Compare that to the time they face off in Jedi: the odds are still on Darth's side, but not so far on Darth's side that we cannot believe Luke can win. Which is why we sat on the edge of the chair, trying to see Luke in the gloom, wondering how he was going to best Vader.

So, by the time you get to writing that final conflict, I'd say you want no more than a ten to one shot against your Hero winning.  That still allows for the underdog takes the game sort of sense, but isn't so far out in the realm of impossibility that your readers don't bother to finish the book.

Getting the ratio close(r) to one to one is usually where a lot of the story part of the story takes place. It's the entire point of the Hero's Journey. It's the reason why the farm boy comes into his powers, and the old mentor has to die/vanish before the final conflict can occur. If the mentor is still around, the power is too strongly stacked on Team Good's side.

In the High Quest variation of fantasy, some level of evening things up happens during the quest, and then the Object of the Quest finishes up the deal. If Dark Lordenstein is cackling away, rubbing his hands with glee, and summoning the Minions to destroy Farm Boy, then Farm Boy needs a real weapon to take to that fight. So this is the time where whipping out the +5 Holy Avenger of Villain Smiting is perfectly okay. If it comes out earlier in the plot, where Farm Boy is still fighting rats and ruffians, there's no tension in those fights. If Farm Boy never finds his super weapon, and Dark trips on his Minions, causing the doomsday weapon to fire upon himself, thus killing him, the reader is let down because there's no triumph for Farm Boy. (This is part of why Harry Potter, with the rebounding curse of doom, was less than perfectly satisfying. Voldie kills himself in the end is just sort of flat. It's not terrible, but it's not very rich, either.) But if Farm Boy finds that +5 Holy Avenger of Villain Smiting a chapter or two before going into the final conflict, then he's got just enough time to get a feel for it, but not enough time to become the absolute master of it, and we get to enjoy seeing him and Dark battle it out, with both sides powerful but not invincible.

In the tragic folly sort of fantasy plot, (this is where Dark Lordenstein is a major POV character, being set up to fall as a tragic figure) this is where his Minions are betraying him, getting killed off, etc... In this case it's not necessarily so much that Team Good is gaining power as that Team Evil is losing it.

And in many fantasy stories, there's a bit of all three going on, and probably a half dozen or so other templates, but they all work out to the same thing, when Team Good and Team Evil clash for the last time, it's a toss up as to who will win.

Who wins in the end? Team Good. This isn't as hard and fast as the Happily Ever After is for romance readers, and I'll go into the variations on it in the next post, but in the end, Team Good has to take the day.
Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Magic, Contract, Plot

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


So, I usually try to keep this a politics free place, but this one hits home.

I am a copyright holder. I've got one book out, and hopefully two more out in the next year, all in electronic format. And trust me, I want to get paid for those books. But here's the thing, there are better, easier, and more importantly, effective ways to battle copyright infringement.

SOPA is using a tank to battle a mosquito infestation. You blow the shit out of everything nearby and don't do a damn thing to the mosquitoes.

We are a representational democracy. Let your representatives know this isn't the way.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Indie Book Review: The Wars of Gods and Man

I'd like you to imagine for a moment Macbeth blended with an Old Testament, henotheistic, my God-is-better-than-yours battle. Cool, yes? I thought so.  And that's precisely what The Wars of Gods and Men delivers.

The Wars of Gods and Men follows three main characters, Eboric, Ayren, and Kolrig, through the creation of, destruction of, and re-creation of an empire, that mirrors a meta battle between warring Gods. If micro-scale political fantasy is your idea of "Oh yes! Give me more!" this is the book for you. If humans flailing about, unsure of their place in the winds of destiny makes you happy, pick this book up.

If you're familiar with Macbeth, you'll recognize one of the major plot threads, betrayal, destruction, and tragic endings for the traitors. But that's not all that's going on in here. The War of Men is but a micro version of the War of Gods, which we get hints and glimpses of, but never see in full. The tantalizing glimpses of what is going on beyond the human characters are well-rounded enough to keep the readers happy, but mysterious enough to maintain a nice tension to the tale.

Now, many of us are familiar with Christian fantasy, where the writer draws a made-up world with a Messianic figure and a message that looks awfully familiar to just about everyone raised in the West. The Wars of Gods and Men is a sort of twist on this. I'd call it Jewish fantasy, because the war of the Gods aspect looks a whole lot like the Old Testament. A Prophet foresees destruction of those who do not follow his God. He and those who believe with him are persecuted for their faith. Miracles abound as the Prophet puts those other godlings and their worshipers in their places. There's even a mist that kills everyone who happens to be outside of their tent when it creeps into camp. Cenred, the Prophet, might not be an exact match to any specific OT Prophet, but the parallels (down to his bald head) are certainly there.

I'll admit I was very pleased to see that. Pretty much, if there are five great influences on Western literature, the Bible and Shakespeare are, if not the top two, then definitely on the list. So, put them together, execute it with grace and dignity, and wrap it up with a spin on nation building, and well, I was a happy reader.

Speaking of grace and dignity, this was a tidy little book. Characters are rounded and three dimensional, their motivations clear, voices distinct, and actions true to their personalities. (I might have wanted just a tad more depth on Kolrig, but the somewhat brief moments of his inner life fit the character's lack of introspection nicely.) Though this is the first book in a series, it stands alone without any problems. The story arc is complete in and of itself, while still leaving room for continuing adventures. Description might be a little minimalist for some readers, but I'm not much of a visual processor, so the lack of intricately wrought description didn't bother me at all. I had a pretty good idea of what everything looked like, and I didn't need page upon page of description.

And, though it should go without saying, any book on the market should be competently proofread and formatted, but after reviewing so many in a row that weren't, I'd like to specifically mention that The Wars of Gods and Men is cleanly formatted, easy to read, and I didn't notice any major foul ups in the grammar or punctuation department. In a nutshell, it looks professional. And that was a very, very welcome change from some of my most recent reading experiences.

So, all in all, I was quite pleased with The Wars of Gods and Men. I'll happily recommend it to anyone who is looking for a twist on a familiar tale.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Fantasy Sage Speaks: Magic

A bit ago I wrote about the responsibilities of the fantasy writer to his readers: the unwritten contract between us and them. On one of the places I posted that article, I got a comment along the lines of the contract I had talked about was pretty generic and could stand in for almost any type of fiction.

So I'm back, with a series of issues specific to the fantasy writer. Now, none of this is written in stone. A great writer, or even a really good with the right attitude can get away with violating these "rules." But please, bear in mind, if you're going to break them, A: You will annoy a fairly large segment of your reading audience. B: Don't just stumble into it. Do it on purpose, knowing you're going to do it, and do it with style. Readers will be much more likely to forgive a breach of any of these if it doesn't look like sloppy writing.

That said, let's talk magic. 

Think about this for a minute: why is there magic in your story? Put succinctly: the point of magic in your story is not to cover up sloppy writing. It is not your get-out-of-plot-holes-free ticket. It's there to add mystery, wow factor, to push your characters out of their comfort zones, add to the tension of the tale, and even up the power balance (more on power balance in a later post) between your protagonist and antagonist. It is there to color your world, and provide bounds to your reality.

And this is why it annoys people when you muck with that system. It's like reading a historical romance where the main character is constantly texting. You cheapen and violate the strength of the reality you've created when you mess with your magic. So, for the most part, don't do it.

This leads us to the number one, hard and fast, do-not-screw-with-this-if-you-want-happy-fantasy-readers rule: To Thine Own Magic Be True. Seriously. Tattoo this on the backs of both of your hands so that it's staring up at you while you write. Want to annoy your readers? Set up a multi-book series where you suddenly decide that the magical laws you spent so long creating no longer hold true.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to all rules, so there are ways you can muck with your magical system and have it work: Take your characters to a new world. All the rules can go out the window then. If the point of your story is to find some sort of universe altering magic, then the readers are unlikely to be annoyed if, when your characters find it, the magic changes.  Or, any variation on the theme of your main character is Super-Duper Special, The One Whose Coming is Foretold, and part of what makes him super-duper special is that upon fully coming into his power, all the rules get tossed out, works as well. (Though there does seem to be Super-Duper Special Character Fatigue among certain segments of the fantasy reading world.)

Finally, there's Balogium. This is a special sort of magic, and though allowable, it's generally frowned upon. But, for the most part, you can get away with one a book, though readers would prefer closer to one a series. Balogium is a symptom of insufficient plot wrangling. It's a piece of magic that, if used logically, and to it's full extent, would blow your plot and magical system to hell and gone. It's the Time Turner in Harry Potter. Because of insufficient plot wrangling, your plot won't work without the Balogium, so you've got this magical thing in there to save your plot. There's a sort of unspoken agreement concerning Balgonium: you, the author will use it sparingly, and destroy it as soon as possible after it's use, so that it doesn't mess with the rest of your plot, and the reader will pretend not to notice your plot got away from you.

Those exceptions aside, if you can't summon food out of the ether in chapter five and suddenly you can in chapter forty-five, you will have annoyed readers. And, if you keep your plot in line, you won't find yourself in a situation where you have to use your magic as a rescue.

Rule number two: Be very, very careful with powerful magic. Very powerful magic is a really easy way to wreck a perfectly functional magical system and or plot. (And it almost always sets off the Baloginum sensors on high alert.) The most famous example of a bit of fantasy magic that the creators didn't properly think through, and that blew the power balance out of the water was the Teleporter in Star Trek. (I come down on the Star Trek is fantasy, not science fiction side of the debate.)  The Teleporter is a nifty idea, and it looks really cool, and it does solve a real problem for the Trek verse, but it's so powerful that the Star Trek writers ended up having to make it malfunction or make whatever away mission the crew was on Teleporter-proof in just about every third episode, otherwise the solution to the problem is: Beam Me Up.

If your magic is so powerful that it's potentially the answer to any problem your characters run into, tone it down. Your story needs tension, and if you let the characters get too powerful, or create an easy answer to whatever problems they have, you'll have bored readers.

If you are happily writing away and are thinking of adding in a really cool +5 Holy Avenger of Evil Smiting and Bad Guy Destroying, think about it long and hard. You're probably better off without it. Because if you leave it in there, the likelihood is you're going to have to muck with your magical system or plot to compensate. In fact, there's only one reason a +5 Holy Avenger of Evil Smiting and Bad Guy Destroying (or any other ridiculously powerful magical artifact) should ever show up in a book, and that's as the object of a High Quest.

Now, the object of a High Quest can break any magical rule you've got and solve any problems your characters might have because it's there for an entirely different reason than the rest of your magical system. The Quest Object is about evening up the power balance for the final confrontation. Which I'll write about in more detail in the next installment: The Power Balance.

Other Fantasy Sage Posts: Contract, Plot, Power Balance