I’m going to admit it. I’m becoming very critical.
I’ve always been critical – particularly of myself – but lately I’ve been really critical of a lot of things.
Today I was given a short story to read. The purpose of the story was to demonstrate how to use descriptive language to create an emotional affect in the reader. Possibly it succeeded in that but the only emotional affect it had on me was the desire to grab a red pen and have at it – I managed to resist the urge but barely.
So what was wrong with the story?
Every single person or thing in the story was described by at least two adjectives in almost every single instance. Every single time. I’m sorry. The person is whistling. Sure, you can tell us how they are whistling and what it sounds like but the next time you feel the need to mention it you could just say whistling. You don’t then need to come up with two new adjectives (or an adverb and an adjective) to describe how the whistling is happening.
Objects were appearing ‘out of nowhere’. Umm, no. Unless they were tearing through interdimensional portals I’m pretty sure they came from somewhere. Maybe it wasn’t an important somewhere but to explicitly state they came from out of nowhere just leads the reader to wonder how that is even possible.
Characters were behaving out of character – which in a short story is really distracting because you don’t even have the benefit of later explaining the out of characterness (I know that isn’t a word).
I’ll admit it. I’m awful and I’m tearing this story to threads. And it lead me to realise some of the weaknesses I still have in my own writing. I like adjectives (not to this extent but I over use them to be sure). I may not have things appearing out of nowhere but I’m sure I suddenly have people in scenes where they shouldn’t be and have no logical reason to be and I’m sure I need to work on it. I need to turn this critical eye away from things I’m reading and apply it to things I’m writing and I need to look at what I could be doing instead.
Plenty of areas here for me to work on. What are you working on improving?
I’ve been reading a little bit lately. actually I’ve read more books this last week than I had the entire month previous so I should probably amend that statement. Most recently I’ve been reading YA lit, mostly because I’ve been trying to evaluate texts for use in the classroom. This means I’ve been reading a wide range of genres and styles and there are some really strange books out there (also some brilliant ones).
One book that I originally cringed at the thought of reading was Tamara Summers “Never Bite a Boy on the First Date”. I immediately assumed it would be a bad retelling of Twilight and I’d spend a week reading a single page at a time before finally deciding I just couldn’t read anymore. Yet the cover kind of intrigued me.
Despite my trepidation, I bought this book. Why? Because I read the first page. Not the prologue but the first page of chapter one. And I nearly fell over laughing while standing in the book store. Not because it was bad, but because it was really quite amusing and the narrator used understatement so well I just couldn’t help but laugh. Once I recovered from my fit of giggles, I read a few more pages and then I bought the book.
It is a very modern vampire story. The narrator is a sixteen year old, newly made vampire, with an interesting personality that is well expressed in her green hair, multiple-piercings and her general ability to forget about the murdered corpse lying on the steps of the school when distracted by a guy with a cute smile.
There were definitely moments where the narration intruded on the story and they were my least favourite moments. Sometimes you just want her to get on with the story and to stop being so delighted with her own cleverness but other times it works really well.
My favourite line: “But he seemed so… non-murdery He was all ice cream and puppies and sexy-swimmer’s arms.”
I’m still on the fence about whether I love this book or not because I know there were definite moments where I really was annoyed at the story but I’ve finished it with a smile on my face. I guess it goes to show you won’t know what lies inside a book until you try it.
Have you ever had a book that has turned out to be surprisingly good?
Okay, if you’ve never read a Xanth novel than you probably should, though only if you are really into fantasy.
When people think about humour in fantasy and really rich and interesting worlds and characters they usually look at Pratchett, for good reason. Pratchett is a master of weaving the absurd into his stories and still making this amazing, insightful tale. Yet I find Piers Anthony to have created an equally rich and vibrant world of magic and zany characters though the writing style can feel a little dry at times (probably because the books were published before I was born).
Xanth is a world of magic. Every person (though I use the term person loosely) and everything must have magic or they are exiled from the land. The main character is Bink and we first meet Bink when he is facing exile because he cannot exhibit a magic power. It turns out he does have magic and extremely powerful magic but if I tell you anything else about that it will ruin the very first Xanth novel so you’ll just have to find out for yourself. The setting in these books is alive. The trees each have a magical function. This one grows shoes, that one will grow blanket, and the next one will eat you, etc, etc. The wildlife is intelligent and deadly and you really do have to pay attention to where you step in Xanth.
I really loved reading these books.
What did I learn about writing from reading these books?
- Even if your main character seems weaker than the others, they don’t have to be tearful and pathetic. So many protagonists in fantasy novels start out simpering and useless. Bink may start out weak and he may never rival some of the other characters for strength, but at least he always has strength of character. At no stage do you want something to eat him just so he’ll stop complaining.
- There does not need to be a big, dark, evil in a fantasy novel. There are all manner of conflicts your characters can face. Bink goes up against the rules of his society when he faces exile. Nobody is evil but there is a problem that has to be overcome. In one of the later books the characters choose to seek the source of Xanth’s magic and go on a quest. There is no evil stopping them but it is still a quest filled with danger and excitement.
- Said was not always the dialogue tag of choice. I can – and did – open ‘The Source of Magic’ to any number of pages with lots of dialogue and I found that said was used once. What was used was ‘cried’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘retorted’, ‘urged’, ‘murmured’ and so on. Yes, the current convention is to not use dialogue tags or to limit it to said. I am hoping that the trend changes because I enjoy people exclaiming and shrieking and all those other things that they used to do in books.
- Keeping your characters (and your readers) in the dark makes for a really interesting story as nobody really suspects where things are going to go and yet the story still makes sense.
I’ve finally come to Traci Harding. I would have done her first but unfortunately whenever I talk to people who read very few of them have read Traci Harding and that is a shame. She became my absolute favourite author of all time when I was in high school and even though I have not particularly liked her later work, I still think her Ancient Future Trilogy is the best fantasy trilogy I have ever read.
What did I love about the Ancient Future Trilogy?
- The protagonist. Tori Alexander is an amazing female protagonist. She is confident, strong (she’s a black belt), smart (multiple university degrees), funny, romantic and yet flawed in that she is overly emotional, stubborn and extremely proud. As a high school student she really appealed because her flaws were kind of endearing and she was just an incredible person to read about. Here is a girl who can get zapped through time (multiple times) and always lands on her feet and wins the heart of the really, really hunky guy who just happens to be a King. She’s also an Australian who just happens to be travelling around England when she goes time travelling,
- The setting – A time travel fantasy where they go back to the days of knights and kings but they don’t end up in Camelot. There are a lot of references to the kingdom, there are parallels, but this is not an Arthurian legend and it was nice to read something a little bit different because at the time it seemed like every second fantasy book I read was about Arthur and friends.
- The supporting cast – All the characters in this story are kind of interesting. The fact that you meet several incarnations of the same soul in several different time zones means you see how the soul has developed and grown overtime and you get a real insight into each of the characters by the time we reach the end of the trilogy. There are only a couple of characters who seem to get sidelined and really leave you wanting to know more about them.
- The time travel – I usually really dislike time travel stories because they tie themselves in knots and you are always left wondering how it works its way out. Traci Harding create a time travel story that for once kind of makes sense though by the third book she’s kind of skating over the details very quickly and her explanations may not hold up under scientific analysis but there aren’t any glaring inconsistencies just jumping out and hitting you in the face and disrupting the storyline.
- The ending – and I will not ruin the end of the trilogy for anyone but if you want to experience an end of the world scenario that is truly incredible, this is the trilogy for you.
Now, even though it is my favourite trilogy of all time and I fully recommend reading it to anyone who likes fantasy, adventure, romance, spirituality, strong female characters, etc, etc, I do have to acknowledge some of the issues with the trilogy.
- The language – I do not care what Tori Alexander studied at university you are never going to convince me that anyone living in modern Australia can speak ancient Welsh proficiently enough to communicate with people when travelling back in time. Admittedly, the story would kind of be awful if Tori couldn’t speak to anyone (mostly because she would have been killed within minutes of arriving back in time) but with so much magic and spells flying around later in the story, I would have bought translation spell as an explanation before linguistic genius.
- Repetition – The reader understands fairly quickly that underpinning this relatively simple story about a girl travelling in time there is this deep spiritual story about mastering your soul and acceptance of others view points and natural energy flows and all of these other ideas which are working well together to create a rich and interesting story. However the same concepts are explained multiple ways throughout the trilogy and at times you want to cut the character off and tell them “I already got that in the last book”. Actually, you don’t notice the repetition so much the first time you read the trilogy but the sixth or seventh time it starts to become a bit more obvious.
- The second book – It is always the second book of a trilogy that feels like it is marking time and filling in details and the second book of this trilogy is no different. Tori gets to visit Atlantis, which is kind of cool, except that the people in Atlantis are so spiritual and sweet and dull you are kind of happy when everything starts falling apart.
So, writing lessons learned from reading Traci Harding:
- Have an incredible protagonist – one that really draws people into the story. They don’t have to be perfect and they don’t always have to make the right decision but they need to be interesting and appealing.
- Put the extra work into the supporting characters. The reader will appreciate it.
- If writing a trilogy, spend the extra time on the second book and figure out how to avoid the curse of the middle book. It may not be possible but try anyway.
I know I said that my next writing lessons would have to come from a non-fantasy author but then I moved house and the people who packed the boxes didn’t really get the organisational structure of my collection. As I unpacked my house in a matter of two days, at the moment the books are on the shelf in whatever order they were put into the boxes and that means there is really no order at all. Finding a book, or group of books, from any one author is next to impossible and I like to have the books with me when I write these posts to refer to.
Technically R.L. Stine writes children’s horror rather than fantasy so it is a slight change of pace. He was my first favourite author and I read all through the Goosebumps and then Fear Street series as a kid. I couldn’t get enough of the books. I’ve read and reread my entire collection of these books so many times. The fact that I can read one of these books in under an hour also helps as I tend to use them to de-stress.
What lessons did I learn about writing from reading R. L. Stine?
- Just because a book is a part of a series does not mean the story has to continue. Sometimes I wish all series were like this. You can pick up any Goosebumps book and get a perfect understanding of the story. Or you can read them in order and you get a slightly bigger picture of the whole but for the most part it doesn’t matter. The Fear Street books were a little more connected at times and reading them in order helped you understand some of the references, but the stories made sense regardless.
- Simple writing does not have to mean simple story telling. The Goosebump books are fairly formulaic but the Fear Street ones really open up to a variety plot twists and intrigue even though the writing itself remains fairly basic.
- An off-sider is an incredibly useful device. Reading the Goosebumps and Fear Street stories, every protagonist has someone that they talk to and the few that don’t tend to keep journals and the like. The reason for this is the stories are written in third person but the author wanted us to know what was going on in the protagonist’s head. It is very much the same in Doctor Who. Without someone tagging along for the ride, why would the Doctor ever bother to explain anything. By having the off-sdier the protagonist can get away with explaining things to the reader. Though, R. L. Stine did like to vary his off-sider . He had brothers, sisters, best friends, worst enemies, dogs, neighbours and pretty much anyone who would serve the purpose filling this role.
- You don’t have to save everyone. Even as a young reader I really appreciated that R. L. Stine would at times kill his characters. This was very different from other books that were recommended for young readers and I really liked the fact that tragedy could happen. In other books for kids you don’t get a real sense of tension because you know that everyone is going to be all right. When reading R. L. Stine there is a good chance they won’t be and so you tend to care more about the characters and are more intrigued by the situation as a whole.
So far I have covered writing lessons from reading Terry Pratchett, Ann Bishop and Terry Brooks. Today I am going to look at Katharine Kerr though I think my next author will have to be a non-fantasy one, just to break things up a little.
Katharine Kerr is another amazing fantasy author and one I enjoyed greatly through high-school. I am going to focus on her Deverry Series as far as what I have learned, which is very much a swords and sorcery fantasy with nobles and horses and elves and dwarves and if you read on to the Westlands Cycle (the follow on series) you even get a dragon.
I’m actually going to start with a few things I don’t like about the Deverry Series.
To start with there are two pages of maps with place marked with dozens of places and towns (that do not exist) with names you cannot hope to pronounce. Later on these become useful as the characters trek over the continent and you want a reference point but it is a daunting way to start the book and quite off putting. It is not helped by following the maps with three pages worth of a pronunciation guide so that you can pronounce the names of places and people in the story. Again, off putting. Useful, because three pages into the story you are already wondering how on earth you could pronounce some of the names, but not the way one usually wants to start reading. We then launch into a prologue that maddeningly talks about a girl being reborn and being reminded that she has something to do, but not being given a name or description. Admittedly, this becomes important and necessary later on but as far as starting the story it is not particularly enticing.
And then the story begins.
Any complaints disappear. The story is incredible. The characters, in whatever incarnation they happen to be in at the time, have depth and they feel real. The world is well constructed and you could see it being a working society, not a particularly good one to live in, but it would function. The story manages to hold you captivated despite the fact that it keeps interrupting the ‘modern day’ story to tell you about the lives the characters lived previously and these previous stories are also engaging and well told and even though they disrupt the flow of the story you want to read they don’t feel intrusive.
Writing lessons learned from reading Katharine Kerr?
- If you have a character that defies the expectations of the society they will be an outcast, even if they are an admired one. Jill, our protagonist (of sorts) spends her life on the road with her father learning to be a mercenary. She does not fit with any of the ideals for women in the society. Her father is despised enough for being a mercenary, her choice to become one as well means she isn’t going to fit in. Individuals within the society may admire her and like her but the society is going to shun her.
- People sometimes do horrible things and so characters sometimes have to make bad choices. At the heart of the Deverry series is the idea that there are always consequences for actions, even if those actions happened in previous lives. As we go back and visit the characters previous lives we see why certain things are happening to them in their current life. The interesting thing is that even the ‘good’ character have done some really horrible things for a variety of reasons. Survival, revenge, and love have had them betraying and backstabbing each other through life after life and those choices all come with heavy consequences either in the immediate situation or in their next life.
- Death is not necessarily motivation enough for a character to act. The idea that a character must do x,y and z or they will die is usually motivation enough to ensure that the character does go through the motions. Katharine Kerr seems to go out of her way to create fatalistic characters who seem bent on rushing to their own demise. There are very few characters in the story who wouldn’t die for their honour or their name or wealth or pretty much anything that would make a good story. This actually makes for more interesting characters because their motivations become quite complex at times and you have to really get inside their head to understand why they are doing certain things.
- The mentor character does not necessarily have to be annoying. I blame Yoda for the number of small, wrinkled mentors running around fantasy books berating the characters and guiding through annoyance. Not that I didn’t like Star Wars and Yoda but I think the number of cheap imitations out there has gotten a little beyond a joke. The mentor is a standard character in a sword and sorcery fantasy but I really enjoyed Nevyn. He is old but still very active and his influence is minimal until later in the series as he choose to stay on the sidelines and waits for the other characters to make their own choices. What I really like about him is that he makes mistakes. It is his initial mistake that sets most of the later events in motion. He may have gained some wisdom but he is human and his emotions and own desires frequently get in the way.
It is the end of another week and we are about to enter the crazily busy Christmas week so Merry Christmas everyone and hopefully you all have a good week whether you celebrate the holiday or not. Some more links for writers this week:
Recommended Read for the Week:
Jennifer Blanchard shares the 43 Most Inspiring Writing Posts she found in 2009. Some excellent links in this post.
My Posts This Week:
What genre do you write? So many genres, so many cross genres, which genre do you write in?
The Read List – my first reads for 2010 from my TBR pile. What are you going to be reading next year?
The final post in the Writing Is series – Tirza, Corra and Fiona all share their thoughts on what writing is.
Other Writing Links:
Elspeth Antonelli asks if your characters are clear thinking.
Lynnette Labelle discusses some of the problems with writing in multiple genres.
On My Father’s Shoulders questions the writing rule of write what you know.
JSChanceller talks about the utility of tangents.
Amy Allgeyer Cook suggests that new writers should not start with a trilogy.
This Book Binge posts suggests how you can write a perfectly dreadful query letter (well worth reading the footnotes).
Andrew Jack introduces his rule for writing endings with oomph.
All and all, I hope you enjoy reading these and I hope you have a great week. As usual, if you wish to add a link or want to suggest a post, please leave it in the comments or email me with suggestions for the next weekly reflection.
I’m trying to make the writing lessons a regular feature of the blog but it is probably going to be an every other week thing rather than a weekly inclusion. I really like writing these posts because it makes me think about books I’ve read and loved and what works and what doesn’t. The feedback I’ve gotten from readers of the blog seems to imply that others are finding these helpful as well so I’ll try to throw them up from time to time.
Terry Brooks is awesome. I am not going to hid the fact that I am a fan of his work and that I definitely see the good rather than the bad. If you aren’t into fantasy Terry Brooks is the writer behind the Shannara series followed by the Heritage of Shannara series, – literally the only time I thought the follow on series was better than the original – The Magic Kingdom of Landover Series and Word and Void series. There are also a whole stack of other Shannara titles and he has written two novelisation of sci-fi movies. Busy guy and fabulous writer.
My focus is going to be the Word and Void series because it was my favourite and it is the one I have read again and again. Why is this series better than his others? This one is set in the ‘real’ world and deals with a young female protagonist who in the first book gets her first real taste of tragedy and by the final book becomes a woman of great strength and poise. Her development is amazing and as a young female reader I connected instantly with this story.
So, what did I learn about writing from reading Terry Brooks’ Word and Void series?
- You can give your characters really bizarre names if by the end of the story they have made the names their own. This might sound strange but if you read the book you will understand. The main character is named “Nest Freemark” and on the very first page of the first chapter she is woken from sleep by “Pick”. My first thought as a young reader was why is this girl’s name Nest? By the end the question is, why isn’t Nest one of the most popular names for girls. Nest manages to endear herself to the reader and because she is a mostly normal girl with the slightly odd habit of having to patrol the park at night for wandering children being lead off cliffs by ‘feeders’ the name which sounds odd at first begins to fit her perfectly. One thing is for sure, you never forget Nest’s name.
- Just because a book is fantasy doesn’t mean it has to be full of epic battles and sieges. The Word and Void series covers three specific confrontations between the Word and the Void and though the confrontations take place in the real world, they barely make a ripple. These books are focused on the relationships between characters and the choices that they make. There is magic, but it comes at a very high cost (point three), and ultimately these books are about the characters in them.
- When characters have magic there need to be limitations and these have to be observed. What peril is involved for anyone if they can magic their way out of any given situation? Do you care for that character? Does your heart race as they find themselves in jeopardy? Probably not. Nest has magic but she can’t use it very well and she is scared of it. By the third book she has learnt some control but her power is still limited. John Ross, the Knight of the Word, has a magic staff but in receiving it he was crippled and can’t walk without leaning heavily on the staff. Using the power drains him and leaves him vulnerable to attack. Other creatures have magic specific to one purpose and it isn’t easily used otherwise. This allows there to be a real sense of danger surrounding these characters as they face off against demons.
- Everything has a price. I know I’ve talked about it before but there have to be real consequences for characters. Otherwise the reader feels cheated. A wrong choice in youth will come back to bite a character and making the decision to walk away from a battle has to have disastrous consequences. Think about it for a minute. If the other characters are begging someone to stay because they ‘need’ their help and that person walks off and nothing happens, what is the point? Why does the reader care? If however many of those people begging for help are in fact killed or injured because that person didn’t stay then there is a reason for the reader to care. Terry Brooks is a master of giving us a reason to care about the choices his characters make but the consequence is never quite what you expect.
I’m going to say it again, Terry Brooks is awesome. If you have ever wanted to read fantasy and haven’t, Terry Brooks is a great place to start. Let me know if this advice has been helpful and which writers you think have helped you become a better writer.