As it was in the beginning: how does an author hook a reader?

 

Wherein I promise the advice every writer wants and fail to deliver…

Especially because I don’t give advice. I don’t have the credibility, but I can read, and I am constantly working to become a better writer. I have started my latest project three or four times (I honestly can’t remember), and every time there was a problem. The most recent problem was “too much, too soon.”  I had a great beginning to introduce the character and some special qualities of his–he’s a musician and poet, and he has the ability to speak to goddesses, something that is rare to say the least–and an interesting situation.  But once I started writing, I realized that a lot of stuff was happening and that we actually hadn’t gotten to know the main character.  I wrote about twenty thousand words before I realized that readers actually hadn’t connected with the main character, despite an interesting first chapter.

And I realized that a lot of my favorite books, books where I am totally hooked from beginning to end, actually don’t do a lot in the beginning.  The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, for instance, begins with a bizarre and exciting prologue with a guy blowing himself up, but after that, Chapter 1 is people walking into town, getting ready for a party.  Plenty of books do start with a bang, but those that do usually settle into the fairly regular rhythm of daily life for the main character.  But at the same time they don’t seem mundane. Continue reading “As it was in the beginning: how does an author hook a reader?”

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The Anatomy of Story (Goodreads Review)

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master StorytellerThe Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a classic storytelling manual, and it certainly adds something unique to the storytelling world, but I had a lot of trouble telling what that was. If you are the sort of writer who devours writing books and collects advice, able to weigh it against everything else you’ve read, then this is a good book. Based on my reading of it, however, it is not a panacea. Not that it has to be, but I would advise against having expectations as high as the jacket copy suggests.

My complaints follow. Continue reading “The Anatomy of Story (Goodreads Review)”

Do sociopaths make good villains? In defense of villains, Part II

72536Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) answers a lot of questions writers ask about villains. Again and again, the question comes up of what villains want, why they bother, and what motivates them. A related question is whether a writer should portray villains as doing the right thing from their own perspective. We need villains to make heroes act heroic, but villains themselves are often interesting, sometimes even more, and it’s their perspective that’s so interesting. Most readers and writers are not villains: they care more about cats and puppies than seeing people suffer, and writers and readers tend to be people who like to delve deep into the psyche and experiences of people who are not like them. In this vein, I decided to do some research on sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and criminality to get at these questions in a more thoroughly psychological way (i.e. not just through great works of fiction). Continue reading “Do sociopaths make good villains? In defense of villains, Part II”

Have some taste

In which I try to define serious art and alienate Firely and Megadeth fans

My quest as a writer, and to a larger extent as a reviewer, reader, and participant in aesthetic culture, is mostly consumed with figuring out what distinguishes one work from another in terms of a very hard-to-define quality. Whether I am socializing around music, science, or science fiction, there are certain qualities that distinguish one fan from another and the reflection of those qualities in the works that we socialize around. There is some criterion by which I look at music, movies, television shows, short stories, and novels, that reflects its quality better than anything else, yet this criterion is not specifically related to execution of the story or music.  It’s often not a matter of skill, but of choices made by the artist of what to talk about, or what to take seriously.  It’s very hard to place, but I think I have arrived at calling it “taste.” Continue reading “Have some taste”

Back to Back to Basics: Phases of Life and Story Structure

Life and our ability to assess our own knowledge goes in phases.  There are many summaries of this, but since this is a writing blog, I wanted to point out that attitudes about story structure can change over the course of a life, or over the course of writing a novel or story.  I am working my way through a new novel during NaNoWriMo, and I’ve noticed that although I’m a great fan of story structure (for reasons I’ll go into below), I don’t really follow the structure religiously, and yet things seem to work. Continue reading “Back to Back to Basics: Phases of Life and Story Structure”

I Got No Roots: Fantasy Language Methods

How do you come up with fantasy languages?

A Facebook discussion earlier this week led to a request to describe my method for coming up with fantasy (i.e. invented) language. My reply was that I don’t come up with a whole language, although I try to invent a method that produces a consistent-sounding set of words. I improvise and then edit, after using a model language that’s consistent with the setting. Since it really ought to be heard, I decided video was the best way to get this across.

Continue reading “I Got No Roots: Fantasy Language Methods”

The Iron Flower by Laurie Forest (Goodreads Review)

The Iron Flower (The Black Witch Chronicles, #2)The Iron Flower by Laurie Forest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure: I am a colleague and friend of Laurie Forest as well as a devoted fan. If I didn’t love the book, I wouldn’t have read it, and I wouldn’t leave this review. I paid full price for my hardback copy.

Laurie Forest’s sequel to her 2017 debut The Black Witch extends the primary storyline and invokes new points of view to add to the epic scale of the conflict. Elloren Gardner is now firmly ensconced in the Verpacian resistance to encroaching Gardnerian rule. Her aunt has kept up the pressure for her to marry (wandfast) and the harassment of non-Gardnerians increases. Her small cadre of teen revolutionaries is secure and expanding, but Elloren finds herself caught between feelings for a boy she can’t be with, and her duty to the resistance. If she fasts to Lukas Grey, she might be able to turn him to the resistance, and make him a powerful ally. But her true feelings lie with Yvan, a Kelt whose secrets become harder to hide.

The action really heats up when the Gardnerian military cadets refuse to hide their prejudice, start riots, and attack members of the other races. Everyone makes an escape plan, and Elloren plans to stay behind to help whoever she can. Continue reading “The Iron Flower by Laurie Forest (Goodreads Review)”

Getting into Lovecraft

Reading H.P. Lovecraft requires, ironically, going beneath the surface.

h-_p-_lovecraft2c_june_1934
Howard Phillips Lovecraft (August 20, 1890 – March 15, 1937)

The stories of H.P. Lovecraft have a dedicated following in the Fantasy and Science Fiction community, and are canonical in Horror, along with Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Algernon Blackwood. Lovecraft’s corpus enjoys a certain unity, which some might call repetition, unparalleled except in more recent authors who aren’t afraid to cite Lovecraft as an influence, or even hail him as a genius. The works of Stephen King and Clive Barker, for instance, have so many crossovers that readers often conclude each work is part of a larger whole, an entire fictional universe. Just like Stephen King’s fictional analogue of the state of Maine, Lovecraft’s work takes place in a New England of his own creation, with its own universities, towns, and publications.

These repetitions and allusions build up to a world that is haunting and creepy, but not because of what you might expect. We have to take a look at Lovecraft’s style of narration and the psychology of those narrators to really figure out why Lovecraft’s stories are indeed weird, enduring, and influential. Lovecraft’s stories get under your skin but not for anything on their surface. I have been reading At The Mountains of Madness for the past few days, and while I’m reading I don’t sit there thinking “oh God, I’m terrified,” or even “that’s sick!”

But I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, terrified that lurking in the corner is something whose terrible presence so chills me that I cannot sleep. To keep typing this blog post is so deeply against my nature that it may result in a complete nervous breakdown, terrifying my very soul and giving rise to the persistent thought that I should stop typing, delete my WordPress account, and drift into anonymity…but it’s a warning you all must have before you make the same regretful choices I have made. Oh, how I wish I had never opened the 2014 publication of The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Leslie S. Klinger with an introduction by Alan Moore, and published by W.W. Norton. Oh, the regret… Continue reading “Getting into Lovecraft”

Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman (Goodreads Review)

Black Sun Rising (The Coldfire Trilogy, #1)Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short version: richly-imagined world, historically important in modern fantasy, and mostly skilled prose, though mixed and sometimes hard to follow.

 

Black Sun Rising is a book I have looked forward to reading for years, as it’s often found on library shelves and lists of influential or favorite books. The tipping point came when I found the third book of a different trilogy at a local thrift store. C.S. Friedman’s skill was evident from the first word and I found myself stuck, ignoring my kids. Black Sun Rising, likewise, is engaging and drew me in with its inventive and original world. The author is not tentative about revealing the nature of the world: this is a future world colonized by spacefaring humans, and the relationship to earth is clear from the very beginning, in the prologue. You’re clearly dealing with earth cultures and remnants from Earth on a world that works differently, right on page 1. Continue reading “Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman (Goodreads Review)”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: what sets it apart?

What makes the final book of the series so meaningful and complete?

I haven’t posted in a while thanks to numerous life developments and lots of writing done.  If you’re interested in that, see below.

136251Lately I’ve rewatched two Harry Potter films and it’s brought back memories of reading the books, a project I finished in 2015, reading all seven books to my sons. Harry Potter was a known character even before we started the books, and enough of my friends and enough of popular culture centers around Harry and Hogwarts that I thought reading the books would be a good idea.  I am just a few years too old, and was too cynical about fiction at the turn of the century, so I missed the Harry Potter boat until my boys were old enough to hear them aloud.

And it was certainly fun.  Reading books with kids is a completely different experience from reading them as an adult, especially an adult in graduate school.  Prisoner of  Azkaban was incredibly fun, and the prospect of my kids getting excited and staying excited to read books together, especially books over 500 pages, was really exciting.  Finally understanding the jokes and references related to the books was also fun, even if I made sure to tell people right away that I was reading the books to my kids, not just for my own enjoyment.  I finally knew who Tonks was, and that was helpful in my general life. Continue reading “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: what sets it apart?”