Goodreads

In my latest move to further build up my social online presence I’ve moved onto goodreads.com. You can find my new profile here. It’s also installed permanently on the righthand sidebar via the  icon.

Those of you who use goodreads, link to my profile and friend me. If you read and haven’t signed up for it, you might want to. Basically it’s Facebook for books. You can easily find rate and review books and then share them with your friends. I posted up about 50 book reviews (mined from this blog) and rated another 70+. Of course I’ve read over 10,000 novels so I’m not about to go back and do them all, but I’ll add them as I see them.

As an author, Goodreads is supposedly a great place to market your books, which is my nefarious ulterior motive in joining yet another social network. Muhaha!

For my book reviews, click here.

For my posts on writing, click here.

Middle Madness

I think I’m over the hump with the third major draft of my new novel, Untimed (for a quick blurb see here).

Story structure is hard. And while this book is much better structured than early drafts of my previous novel, it had two major problems: the ending and the first part of Act II. Late (very late) in the second draft I cracked the ending. So that just left the middle.

Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when the biggest comment from my awesome freelance editors’ (I use three: Renni Browne, Shannon Roberts, and R.J. Cavender) involved problems in this middle section. It’s not that the scenes wen’t good or exciting, but mostly that I fell prey to a personal need to sneak Napoleon into the story (time travel seems to call out for the most pivotal personality of the modern era) and this resulted in a bad case of “Double Mumbo Jumbo” (or a variant thereof).

So what is the dreaded Double Mumbo Jumbo? Most specifically it’s the phase coined in Blake Snyder‘s Save the Cat book (which I discuss here). DMJ is invoked by throwing two unrelated implausible things into the same story. However, my specific problem is really a cousin, what my editor Renni calls “1+1=1/2″. This is, the idea that doing the same improbable thing twice in the same book isn’t twice as good as doing it once, but actually half as good. Even if the thing is cool. So a kind of DMJ.

And I was doing it in my middle.

Still, this section of my story accomplished a lot of other things too. And I had to figure out how to rework it to keep as much of the good as I could, avoid a DMJ — and not make TOO much work for myself in terms of repercussions later in the book. Thinking about various ways to restructure, particularly given the constraints of my story, my elaborate time travel scheme, and history itself, was quite the brain buster. I thought on it all day for at least a week. So hard one Friday that I literally gave myself a migraine headache! I found myself pondering time travel so aggressively that I became confused as to what year it was — and then my vision began to shimmer (migraine).

I probably outlined 15 different scenarios and talked about countless more. This part of the writing process is very peculiar. I often end up with a half-baked scenario that satisfies some goals, but just doesn’t really work. One quickly reaches a point where no new ideas surface internally and you need to shake it up. I then find it extremely useful to talk with a limited pool of friends who have read the book in it’s latest incarnation. This allows me to efficiently go over the possible elements. Then we talk out the problems. By vetting numerous failed scenarios it’s often possible to collect enough different disconnected ideas that a single coherent new plot can be jig-sawed together. Or at least coherent enough to polish out in the writing.

This last week, I even twice resorted to writing out (as prose) incomplete outlines to see if they worked. The first revealed itself as a miserable failure. The second made it to the finish.

Now it’s off to friends and editors to see how it passes muster.

For more posts on writing, click here.

Untimed – Two Novels, Two Drafts!

My second novel, Untimed, is a YA time-travel adventure.

And I just finished the rough version of my second draft. Whew! Happy to be done with that. The book grew to 84,000 words (it’ll probably get trimmed down a bit for draft three). It still needs polish, but the second draft is often the worst, and this one took 5 or so weeks of concentrated work. While I learned from my first novel and put the beginning at the right place, the previous draft still had a number of classic first draft problems.

Namely, character and motivation needed work. Plot can formally be considered the friction between the protagonist’s desire and the obstacles to said desire. The book is/was jam packed with conflict and action, but the desire line was a bit weak. I won’t say it’s perfect now, but it’s a hell of a lot better. As are the characters. For me it’s difficult in the first draft to flesh both of these out because as a pantser I don’t know exactly where I’m going with the story until I get there. Not that I write blind, but I like the story and the characters to take me where they want.

When writing the second draft, you have an end (even if you plan on changing it), so you know all the elements that you intend to put in the book. Therefore it’s easier to go back and foreshadow those and reinforce the important ones. You also know what the character is going to need to feel at different points in the story, so it’s easier to try and set up and reinforce those feelings.

Additionally, as a pantser, I actually get to know my characters in the first draft. The writing of them brings them to life in my head. Then in the second draft, I need to brainstorm extra elements in their past and present that reinforce the traits I know they’re supposed to have, then hint at the them in the book. Again, hard to do the first time around.

Now to see what some reader that aren’t me think — and trial and nail the third draft.

I’d also like to thank my story-consultants Sharon & Bryan for listening to every blow by blow change and my independent editors Renni & Shannon for pointing me in the second draft direction. Here’s to hoping I went far enough :-).

The second draft involved a few weeks of incubation (June), a full read and polish (also June), and then hardcore writing from June 30 until August 2.

And in case you’re wondering what the book is about, I still haven’t written a log line, but its a lean-mean-fast-paced first person present story about a boy whose name no one remembers — not even his mother. And it features Ben Franklin, Napoleon, a male gang leader that wears red high heels, and the Tick-Tocks, creepy clockwork time traveling machines from the future.

For more posts on writing, click here.

The Maltese Falcon

Title: The Maltese Falcon

Author: Dashiell Hammett

Genre: Detective Noir

Length: 217 pages

Read: May 25-26, 2011

Summary: Pure awesomeness.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

There are so many reasons why this is the archetypal detective novel. It’s pure pleasure from start to finish.

Let’s start with the writing. The prose is lean, but it has a way of sparing with the reader, a delightful economy and turn of phrase. Things are handled in a straightforward sequential manner. Simultaneously spartan and luxurious. There’s actually a surprising amount of description. Nearly every character is detailed on first meet, often with a good full two paragraphs. But they’re worth it (more on that later). Spade‘s actions are spelled out in exquisite and exhaustive detail — there must be at least fifty cigarettes rolled and smoked in this tiny book and countless details of dressing, moving from place to place, etc. Somehow these don’t drag, not at all. Action too, is quick, but handled in a kind of cold clear detail. What there isn’t, is one whit of interior monologue. The closest we get is the occasional, “Sam’s expression contained a hint of smugness” or “her hands twisted in her lap.” And more than anything, the prose is fun to read.

Plotting. The story is byzantine, and involves no one knowing exactly what’s going on, but Sam being a damn good judge of what’s likely to happen. There’s perhaps a bit too much action happening off screen, and a little too many coincidences or startling reverses. And for a book with so many shootings and double crosses, it’s mostly filled with dialogue scenes. But that isn’t a problem because…

The dialogue rules! Oblique, snappy, it crackles back and forth like a gunfight. The rules for writing quality dialogue could have been modled on this novel alone. Characters interrupt, they’re impatient, they lie (and lie again), they argue, they betray. They do a lot of talking. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Characters. Hammett really shines here. The villains are a bit over the top, but I adored them. The sinister (and limp wristed — oh so pre-politically-correct) Cairo, the fatman, the kid. The author uses a combination of amusing descriptive characterization (Gutman’s bulbs of fat — “He waved his palm like a fat pink starfish!” — or Cairo’s effete details — “when slapped he screamed like a woman”) and highly distinctive dialogue. Gutman’s is a real riot. Overblown, threatening and complementary at the same time. Sam himself is an interesting figure. Tough, incredibly competent, but also prideful, belligerent, and self interested.

Atmosphere. This is nailed, nailed cold and hard like a corpse left out in January. It oozes late 20s San Francisco. The dangerous dames, the cartoony gangsters, the police always one step behind. The tension in the way that the backstabbing moxie Brigid uses her feminine wiles eerily foreshadows basic instinct and countless followups.

The book’s been a classic for 80 years, and with good reason.

For more book reviews, click here.

Untimed – Two Novels, Check!

Today I reached a milestone and finished the first draft of my second novel, tentatively titled Untimed. Now this doesn’t really mean it’s done, revision is usually more work than the first draft. Still, it’s a book. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Untimed is the first book in YA time travel series. I haven’t written a log line yet, but it’s currently 70,000 words, and is a lean-mean-fast-paced first person present story about a boy whose name no one remembers — not even his mother.

Oh, and it features Ben Franklin, Napoleon, a male gang leader that wears red high heels, and the Tick-Tocks, creepy clockwork time traveling machines from the future.

I started it Feb 9, 2011 and finished the first draft May 20, 2011. I took about three weeks “off” to work on revisions of The Darkening Dream. So that’s roughly three months. My output was actually slower (as measured in words) than with TDD, because a don’t overwrite now. If anything Untimed is underwritten and certainly needs a lot of character work in revision, which might make it grow slightly.

I learned a lot of things from problems with TDD (mostly fixed in my many many revisions). I learned to find a place to start your story that really hooks BEFORE starting to write. I learned not to write any scenes that involved merely going from place to place. I learned not to flash back. I learned to stick with the plot, not the sub plots. And a whole lot more.

And I tried to outline the entire story before I wrote it, failed miserably, and concluded that I’m really a pantser (a seat of the pants writer).

For info on my first (and completed) novel, click here.

ps. If you’re one of my many dedicated beta readers, and want to offer early high level feed back, send me a note.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Title: The Postman Always Rings Twice

Author: James M. Cain

Genre: Crime Noir

Length: 116 pages

Read: May 15-16, 2011

Summary: Taut.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

For my second novel I’ve been trying to adopt a sort of hardboiled style, even though it isn’t a crime or a noir. So I figured I go back to the beginning and read some of the classics.

This 1934 novella just breezes on by. The first half (act I) is like watching a train wreck unfold. I greedily devoured the setup. Seedy drifter, sexy unhappy wife, and loser older husband. Plus it’s a crime novel. You know things aren’t going to end up good. The style here is lean and mean. It feels fully modern, dated perhaps only by certain phrases and actually it’s utter bare bones quality, devoid of really deliberate voice. My only complaint here was that it’s so sparse on dialogue tags that I often got confused as to who said what and had to back up and count. That’s too few tags.

Not that it detracted much. So then mid book, the crime itself happens (not counting the aborted first attempt) and the gears shift a bit into legal territory. This middle section I found had a bit too much “tell.” It breezed along, but it reminded me of the second half of The Magician. Then we get to the third act. This was back more to the mater-a-fact what happens, but it did feel a little fast, perhaps resorting to a bit too much forced plotting.

Still, I enjoyed the book immensely, and it seems best as I can tell the blueprint for countless crime stories where greed/lust/whatever drives everyone to an inevitable bad end. Some great movie entries in this genre would be Body Heat, A Simple Plan, or the very recent The Square.

Another interesting thing about this story is not only could you set it in any era, but the exact text could pretty much serve from 1920 through to present day. The only difference now would be cell phones and better police investigatory techniques.

Game of Thrones – The Houses

With the premier of Game of Thrones, the HBO series based on what is perhaps my all time favorite Fantasy series, fast approaching, the network has been releasing all sorts of goodies. Now I’ve posted about this before, but these books, and it looks like the show, are so darkly delicious that I fell I must share.

Power (above) is new trailer.

Fear and Blood (above) is another new trailer for the show in general.

Then we have a whole series of videos on some of the most important Great Houses. Like Dune before it, Game of Thrones is a story about the interplay of politics and loyalty among a number of great factions. This was frequently true during the late middle ages, and to some extent the series is based a bit on the War of the Roses.

The Starks (above) are the moral center of the story.

House Baratheon holds the throne… for now.

The Lannister’s you love to hate — except for Tyrion who rules.

House Targaryen knows all about dragons.

Above is a more detailed video on Jaime Lannister.

and above Robb Stark.

Above is Littlefinger.

and above about the world in general.

For a review of episode 1, click here.

The Wise Man’s Fear

Title: The Wise Man’s Fear

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: High Fantasy

Length: 380,000 words, 1000 pages

Read: March 4-12, 2011

Summary: A worthy sequel.

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The Wise Man’s Fear is one of 2011’s two most anticipated Fantasy novels, the other being George R. Martin‘s A Dance with Dragons (due in July). WMF, however, can be all yours right now. It’s the sequel to The Name of the Wind (which I REVIEW HERE). This is High Fantasy of a rather less epic sort. Not that it’s any less fun to read, even weighing in as it does at 1008 hardcover pages. Although, who thinks about pages these days, as I read the Kindle version on my iPad (wouldn’t want to mess up that nice hardcover first edition I had signed by Mr. Rothfuss last week!).

Despite the length, it’s well worth it. This book is seamless with the first in the series, despite the four years gap between their publication. I read The Name of the Wind a second time last week, and WMF picks up and continues with exactly the same style and pace. There is still the box story in the present, but this accounts for no more than 5% of the pages. The action mostly takes place in the past with our hero, Kvothe, continuing on for a bit at University and then venturing out into the wider world. While we sense that some bigger events are in the works, this is still a very personal tale. And it defies all normal story telling expectations in that it just meanders along. My editor’s eye says that whole chunks and side plots could be snipped out without effecting anything. And to a certain extent this is true. But would the novel be better for it? Perhaps it could have lost 50-100 pages in line editing, but I’m not sure I’d take out any of the incidents. As the novel itself says, it’s not the winning of the game, but the playing of it that matters.

That is very much what The Wise Man’s Fear is about. It’s a story about stories. It’s rich and lyrical, a luxurious tapestry of world and story, without the distraction of the intricate mechanism of plot. The little glimpses into different sub-cultures show a deft eye for details and invention. This feels like a real place, not so much explained, but revealed through the narrator’s eyes.

As Rothfuss said in an interview, Kvothe is  older now, and he gets himself into more trouble. There’s more sex and violence this time out, although the main romance is still endlessly unrequited :-) Kvothe it seems, is a hero of many talents, and that includes those in the bedroom. Rothfuss doesn’t focus on these details gratuitously, it’s not a book filled with battle (or bedroom scenes).

I’m curious to see how Rothfuss wraps this up in the third book (and I suspect the trilogy might expand). Things still feel early. We find out barely anything new about the main villains. In fact they don’t even show in this volume. Just like the first book the end is completely limp and anti-climatic. Kvothe just wraps his story up for the day and we wait (hopefully for slightly less than four years).

But I’ll be waiting. Probably for so long that I’ll have to read book one and two again. I won’t mind.

Book and Movie Review: The English Patient

The English PatientTitle: The English Patient

Author: Michael Ondaatje

Genre: Literary Historical Drama

Length: 82,000 words, 300 pages, 162 min

Read: Spring, 2010

Summary: Lyrical.

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I had seen the film when it came out (and several times after) and it’s long been one of my absolute favorites. So to that effect the novel has been sitting on my shelf for over ten years waiting to be read and this spring I finally got around to it. In some ways I’m glad I waited because I wouldn’t have appreciated the prose as much years ago. The voice, told in lightweight third person present, and lacking nearly all mechanical constructs (like dialog quoting or tagging, preamble explanations of scene transitions, etc.) has a breezy lyrical quality to it. It can only be described as delectable. There is a feel of watching a beautiful but flickery film, a series of stuccato images flash through your head as you read it. It’s worth quoting to illustrate:

“She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill towards the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.”

The plot — such as it is — involves a war battered Canadian nurse lingering in Italy at the close of WWII. She has isolated herself in a half destroyed villa and cares for a mysterious burn patient who is dying and too fragile to move. The book focuses on the nurse as its protagonist, concentrating on her relationship with an Indian (via the British army) bomb disposal tech and her efforts to come to terms with the war and loss. The patient slowly unravels his own tale to her. It is his story, set mostly in Egypt before and during the start of the war, which is the primary focus of the movie. In the book it serves more to offset and focus the nurse’s point of view.

I am blown away by the effort of translating this book for the screen. Frankly, although I loved the novel, I like the film better — this is rare. Anthony Minghella managed the near impossible, translating this gorgeous prose into an equally lyrical visual style. It’s less stuccato, more “lush and languid.” Film is a more linear medium, and Minghella focuses the story to create grander more visual arcs. To do this, he expanded the patient’s epic story of love and loss in pre-war Egypt. I’m a sucker for Egypt, the exotic, the British Empire in decay, and worlds that no longer exist. This story feels bigger than the nurse’s, being as it is more tied in with history and international events. But in both you have a powerful sense of people fighting for their passions, both interpersonal and intellectual, despite the baggage of past choices and the buffeting blows delivered by the unstoppable forces of history.

Both variants of this story are inherently complex, ambiguous, and emotional works. Look for no answers here, just gorgeously rendered questions.

The Name of the Wind

Title: The Name of the Wind

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: High Fantasy

Length: 255,000 words, 720 pages

Read: May 2008 & Feb 28-Mar 2, 2011

Summary: Best new fantasy of recent years.

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In 2008, I read this 722 page novel in Xian China during a single sleepless night, and I reread it just now for the second time in preparation for the sequel (released this week): The Wise Man’s Fear. NOTW is a beautiful book. Of all the Fantasy I’ve read in the last 15 or so years, this is perhaps second best after The Song of Ice and Fire. But that’s not to say that they have much in common, other than both being good Fantasy. George R. Martin‘s books are full of characters, POVs, violence, politics, and a darkly realistic sensibility. NOTW is much more focused and relies on more traditional Fantasy tropes. How focused can a 700 page novel be? Not very, but it is good, and it concentrates on a small number of characters and a single (albiet meandering) storyline.

Kvothe is the protagonist. He’s a young man of many many talents, of no means whatsoever, who winds his way from the actor’s troupe to the mean streets to the magical University and to (implied) great and terrible things.

If I have any beef with the book, it’s that the meta premise of the tired hero telling his story is too drawn out. This volume opens in the “present day,” where very little happens except to set us up for the life story of the hero, which is brilliant. Much like Lord of the Rings or Hyperion, the reader must slog for a bit to get to the gold. In this case about 50 pages in. But the slogging isn’t exactly painful because Rothfuss’s prose is lyrical and masterful. Seriously, it’s a wonder given the tangents, bloated conversations (the dialog is great but not efficient), and the like that this book is so easy to read — but it is. Damn easy, even the second time.

The world and the hero juggle uniqueness and heavy — but delicious — borrowing from classic Fantasy of the best sort. I sniffed out a bit of Ursula K. Le Guin (think Wizard of Earthsea), Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time), and who knows how many others. The world is extremely well developed, and feels big, but it doesn’t doesn’t have the camp and cheese of Wheel of Time (although it does pay homage). I love origin stories and I very much enjoyed Kvothe’s journey. He’s a great character: humble, proud, skilled, lucky, unlucky all at once, but in a fairly believable way. Perhaps the most important relationship in the book (and there are actually relatively few) is the romance, and it has a tragic quality that feels very refreshing, and slightly reminiscent of the best of Orson Scott Card (think his old stuff like Song Master) or Dan Simmons.

The magic is very unique and interesting, and we focus on it quite a bit, as this is a story that spends a lot of time in the Arcane Academy. This ain’t no Hogwarts either, it feels altogether more mysterious and dangerous. There are several different magic systems interwoven in what is a world overall fairly light on magic. But this is also a world that feels a bit more technological than most Fantasy, with larger cities, a little more like antiquity than the Middle Ages. The “magical bad guys” have a nice character and bit of mystery to them. I don’t like all my mystery explained. There is a lot of music and theatre in here too, and that just helps heighten the lyricism.

But what exactly makes this book so good?

Proving my geek-cred, swapping some Crash Bandicoots for signatures with Patrick Rothfuss

Fundamentally I think Rothfus is just a great writer, and a very good world builder. I don’t think he’s a great plotter. The story drifts along, relies a bit on coincidence and circumstance, and the end fizzles then pops back out of the interior story and waits for the sequel. But that doesn’t really matter, because the prose, world, and characters keep you enjoying every page.

CLICK HERE for my review of the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear.