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.