The Inside Story

Title: Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc

Author: Dara Marks

Genre: Writing Guide

Length: 327 pages

Read: Oct 22 – Nov 3, 2011

Summary: Best book I’ve read on character arcs.

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I’ve been finishing up my fourth (and hopefully final) draft on my new book Untimed. In discussing the previous draft with one of my writer friends he recommended this book on writing. It’s aimed at screenwriters, but while the mediums are different, there are a lot of commonalities — stories are still stories.

The Inside Story deals with character and structure, and the relationship between these and theme. I’ve read a lot of books on writing in general and story structure in particular, and this is certainly the best on the subject of the transformational arc. It has certain overlapping information with Save the Cat (reviewed here) — but the style is radically different and more serious.

Inside Story focuses very clearly and with no bullshit on the basics of film structure. The A Story forms the external plot, the B story the internal challenge of the protagonist (usually hindered by a fatal flaw in opposition of the story theme) and the C story is contains the relationship challenges required to solve the internal conflicts, and then change enough to overcome the external ones. This book walks through each stage of the arc both in the abstract and specific, using three consistent film examples (Romancing the StoneLethal Weapon, and Ordinary People).

It’s clear after reading this that the deficit in many films is a lack of proper arc and thematic development. Sometimes even good (but not great) films forget this key component. Speed is a good example. It’s a well executed and watchable film, but it fails to really have any arc or theme. Unless you consider “Jack must stop the bomber” to be a theme. There’s no development. Jack stops the bomber by way of guts, determination, and cleverness — all of which he possesses at the start of the film. He really doesn’t have to learn any lesson. The film gets by by way of excellent execution and casting. Lethal Weapon, however, is a character driven (even if intense) action film. No one remembers the specifics of the drug dealer plot. They remember Mel Gibson and Danny Glover‘s characters. And they remember them because they actually have problems they learn to overcome (which incidentally also helps them stop the bad guys).

So how does all of this apply to my novel? Or so I asked myself as I read. Untimed does have a fairly clean three act structure. It does have a character who needs to change in order to overcome his antagonist. C story solves B story solves A story. But on the other hand, I didn’t conceive of the book originally with a clear “theme” in mind, the protagonists issues are not structurally in opposition to this theme (what theme I have, organically grown), and the intensity of suffering is muted by a sometimes light tone. Does this matter? Perhaps less in a novel. Even less in an action novel. Even less in a series book. It’s perhaps this neat and packaged arc that makes so many great films difficult to sequel. If the character has already changed, it’s hard to make him change again. All too often the studio/writers attempt to regress the protagonist in a sequel, to undo and then redo the conflicts that made the first film great (Die Hard 2!). The best sequels, films like Terminator 2 or Aliens, change up the formula and give the character something new to overcome. Still, it’s really really hard to do this three times. Can anyone even think of a stand alone movie where the third installment is great? And Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban doesn’t count, even if it is the best of the eight films.

In fact, this leads me to the interesting observation that not only do individual Harry Potter books have very weak arcs, but even the entire series doesn’t cover much emotional transformation. How is Harry (or Ron or Hermione) terribly different at the end of book 1? Even at book 7? I mean as people, not in terms of circumstance, which is only the A story. The answer is “not very different.” Yeah, they grow up a bit, but there is no fundamental quality that they gain which isn’t present in book 1. Still, these are good books. Some of them are even great books (like the first and third). So go figure.

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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!

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The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing

Title: The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing

Author: J.A. Konrath

Genre: How to

Length: 370,000 words

Read: October 11-18, 2011

Summary: Lots of everything, including, honesty, good advice and value

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This is an oddball book in many ways. First of all, it wasn’t really written as a book, but as an inexpensive ($2.99) Kindle compilation of J.A. Konrath’s blog posts from his excellent publishing blog. Over the last 5 or more years he’s written a lot of posts (500+), and this book is an excellent way to read/skim them quickly. I don’t begrudge him the extra $2.99. Raw as it is, the information and convenience of the format are worth far more. The book provides excellent value.

This book is also very long, perhaps 1,000 pages if it were a printed volume. It covers a vast array of topics involving writing and publishing. Tips on writing itself and motivation (other books cover much of this). A invaluable (and rare) first hand look at one writer’s career. Tips on on traditional publishing, getting an agent, and vast (I mean vast) tips on self promotion. It also, and very interestingly, chronicles Konrath’s evolving perception of the publishing business. From how to make it as a mid-list conventional author to an increasing rejection of traditional publishing’s broken business model. In this regard, it does taper off around 2010, midway through the current beginning of the e-book revolution. I’ve been reading his blog for a while, so I’ve probably read most of the posts since as he becomes ever more e-book centric in his thinking, but I would like them arranged in this easy format (i.e. JA, throw those in next time you update the book).

The book isn’t without flaws. It’s full of redundant posts, and many that aren’t applicable anymore, or to a particular writer’s interests or needs. Still, these are easily skimmed and skipped, and this doesn’t diminish from the overall value and usefulness. I don’t know how Konrath the novelist is (I bought Whiskey Sour, but haven’t read it yet), but as a analyst, he shows a keen mind and perceptivity, unusually clear and objective in his thinking. A very practical guy who looks at the situation as it is, and what’s likely to happen regardless of what entrenched institutions want. This alone is rare, but he also has an energy level that seems high to even super-manic me. The guy did a single promotional tour with 500 book signings! And he brings this level of commitment to every part of his work. Plus, he records, documents, and analyses stuff that few ever would. For example, he tries to reach some analytic conclusions on the sales effect of book signing and touring. He also includes useful logs of his own experiences with various phases of publishing (like the period from finding an agent to the book release — long!). The challenges, luck, and work required to succeed in this business seem more than a little daunting after Konrath’s whirlwind tour.

Over the last two years, I’ve read lots of books on the publishing business, and this one has the largest volume of useful information. Sure it’s mixed with a lot of random other stuff and considerable repetition. But a must read. Just skim the parts you don’t need.

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All Things Change

So I’m about halfway through my last polish pass on my third major draft of Untimed. [Update 7:44pm, finished the polish] This is one of the umpteen revision passes. Only another day or two to go before I send it off again and get down to waiting for feedback (hands down my least favorite part of writing).

The book totally kicks ass BTW — biased opinion but true.

Anyway, this has me planning to spend my “downtime” (waiting) doing some really serious research on self-publishing my first novel, The Darkening Dream, and seeing if I can get it out there before the holiday season.

I’ve been following self-publishing blogs like A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing and Dean Wesley Smith for around a year. These guys — rhetoric aside — have made sense for some time but the arguments for traditional publishing grow lamer and lamer. Check out something like this, which lays it out there — albeit with a lot of flavor. Publishing is in the throws of the cataclysmic “doing digital” change that has or is shaking up all the media businesses. For example, in music the conversion from media (vinyl, cassette, CD) to MP3 during which the labels/studios stuck their head in the sand and found themselves nearly destroyed.

The fact is, the change is coming no matter what any big old-school companies want or try to do. Readers are well on their way to embracing ebooks, the rise of the tablet (aka iPad), and dropping smartphone and reader prices (order your Kindle Fire here! 250,000 preorders in 5 days!), has etched the writing on the wall (in blood). In a few short years print will make up 20 or less percent of the market. Paper books (and I say this as someone who has a two story library with over 15,000 of them!) aren’t going to vanish instantly, but they won’t be majorly relevant for novel sales.

So this basically guarantees completely and without any doubt that print revenues will crater, leaving publishers unable to support their big overheads. Borders (and nearly every independent) going bankrupt will just hasten this. Barnes and Noble is next. They tried with the Nook, but Amazon is going to crush them (again, Kindle fire, not to mention $79 regular Kindle). And publishers, being large old-school companies that employ LOTS of people under the old model are showing lots of signs of panic, but pretty much not a glimmer of adapting to the changing business.

But they won’t have one soon. Because without control of the gates to bookstores, they don’t control anything.

Right now they still make the better product. But as an author they:

1. tie up rights

2. take way too much money (15% vs 70% doing it yourself)

3. take way too long (15 months instead of like 1-2 to market!)

4. charge too much for ebooks

5. don’t actually do any marketing

6. often have really stupid ideas about “marketability” (like “sex doesn’t sell” or “vampires are over” *)

Eventually new meaner leaner packaging companies will make the murky ground of processing books a bit easier, but in the meantime. Time to get researching.

If anyone knows a kick ass indie book marketer, I’m looking to hire one (that’s the only part I can’t really do myself).

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* From above: The Vampire Dairies and True Blood both prove both statements simultaneously asinine. And while TDD does have a vampire, he does not ever sparkle in daylight (900 years and he hasn’t seen a glimpse of it) and he is not in the least sexy. He is, howeverfrightfully smart, cautious, and happy to decorate your house with the entrails of your closest family members.

Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Genre: Pop Science-Fiction

Length: 384 pages

Read: September 13-18, 2011

Summary: 10: buy book 20: read book 30: goto 10

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I read this after two different friends recommended it in the same week. Wow! If you’re one of my (presumably) many readers who love video games. Go buy and read it. This is pretty much the ultimate classic video games novel! And I should know, having been born in 1970, the perfect time to experience the full rise of video games and modern pop culture (inaugurated May 25, 1977). I was so enamored of computers in general and these little beasties in particular that I went and made (and sold) thirteen of them professionally.

But back to Ready Player One. It’s a first person narrative set in a roughly 2040 dystopia where the world has basically gone to shit and most people live inside a gigantic virtual reality video game. It’s creator has died and left his vast fortune to the winner of an elaborate easter egg hunt (think Atari Adventure Easter Egg crossed with the Great Stork Derby). This whole world and contest centers around an obsessive love of all things pop-culture and 80s, particularly films, comics, and most importantly, video games.

In practice the novel is an old school adventure set mostly in virtual reality. But it contains an astounding number of well placed and deeply woven 80s pop-culture references. For me, they were continual fun. I got 99% of them, including some damn obscure ones. I’ve played every game described in the book (except for Dungeons of Daggorath — never had a TRS-80 — but it looks like Wizardry), seen every movie, heard nearly every song, etc. I don’t know how this book will read for someone a lot younger who isn’t up on all this old school geekery, but I sure enjoyed it.

The story is great fun too. The protagonist is likable and all that. It’s not a long book but races along. There are a few second act jitters (the “romantic” period between the first and second keys), but I blew through them fast enough. The prose is workmanlike but unglamorous and there are some cheesy or cringeworthy moments. They don’t distract from the fun. The last third in particular was awesomely rad with numerous 1337 epic moments. When the protagonist faces off against an unstoppable Mechagodzilla avatar and invokes a two-minute Ultraman powerup I felt tears coming to my eyes.

As Science-Fiction the book is a bit mixed. Mr. Cline manages to deftly describe what must to the novice be a bewildering array of virtual reality technologies and concepts. He’s fairly unusual in actually specifying some of the interface elements in his world and he does a credible job with all of this. Nothing stood out as particularly bogus, but was based on decent extrapolation. There are some elements, however, which still exist in his 30-years-from-now future that are already on the way out. Hard drives in “bulky laptops” for example. One only has to look at the iPad and the Macbook Air to see that writing on the wall. Again, I must point out that these minor quibbles do not detract from the book’s extreme fun factor.

Cline is uncannily knowledgable about his video games (and again, I should know), but there is a curious oddity in the biography of the central Bill Gates crossed with Richard Garriot character. He is described as releasing his first hit game (for the TRS-80) in 1987 in plastic baggies. Besides wondering if any TRS-80 game had much cultural impact (Read my own Apple II guy origin story here!), the date is totally off. If he was talking about 1982 that would have been fine. But by 1987 the TRS-80 had gone the way of Allosaurus and plastic baggies hadn’t been seen in years. My first game, Math Jam, was released in baggies in 1984 and that was way late for them. 1987 featured games like Zelda II, Contra, Maniac Mansion, Mega Man, and Leisure Suit Larry. All of these are well after the era venerated in the book. This small, but important, error is odd in a book so otherwise accurate. I can only assume that the author (and his character), living in the middle of the country, existed in some kind of five-year offset time-warp 🙂

On a deeper level, the novel toys with one of my favorite futurist topics: Will we all get sucked into the computer? I actually think the answer is yes, but that it’s unlikely to happen via 90s envisioned visors and immersion suits (like in Ready Player One). I think we probably will have retina-painting laser visors/glasses at some point. Then neural implants. But the real big deal is when our brains are digitized and uploaded into the Matrix. Muhaha. I’m actually serious, if flip. Eventually it will happen. If not this century then the next. I just hope I make it to the cutoff so I can evade bony old Mr. Grim and upgrade.

In conclusion, I have to agree with the back cover quotes of some other authors I like:

John Scalzi: “A nerdgasm… imagine that Dungeons & Dragons & an ’80s video arcade made hot, sweet love, and their child was raised in Azeroth.”

Patrick Rothfuss: “This book pleased every geeky bone in my geeky body. I felt like it was written just for me.”

So if you have even the least enthusiasm for video games, virtual reality, 80s pop culture, or just plain fun. Go read this book!

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PS. If you are 5-10 (or more) years younger than me (born 1970) and have (or do) read this book. Tell me in the comments what you think of it. I’m really curious how those who didn’t live it see it.

I couldn’t resist.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Author: Susanna Clarke

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Length: 948 pages, 308,931 words

Read: August 20 – September 10, 2011

Summary: Really good, really unusual book

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This is one of the best and most unusual books I’ve read in a while, although it’s not for everyone. As you can see it’s quite a tome, clocking in at 308,000 words! It’s set mostly in England during the Napoleonic Wars (first 15 years of the 1800s for historical dolts). It’s also written in a very clever approximation of early 19th century British prose. Think of it as Dickens or Vanity Fair with magic. Actually it’s a little earlier than either of those, but still.

This is not your typical modern novel. It doesn’t have a lot of action. It’s stylistic and archaic voice mostly “tells” (as in “show don’t tell”). But the voice is great, if you like that sort of thing (I did). It’s wry and very amusing, with a defined narrative tone. The voice gives the who book a kind of wry feel, as if we (the reader) are in on something.

It’s also a very character driven story. This is the tale of two magicians, the only two “practical” (i.e. real) magicians to surface in England for some centuries. It’s to a large extent about their quirks and their relationship. There isn’t a ton of action, although there is plenty of magic. There are copious and lengthy asides. Every chapter has several pages of footnotes on magical history! You can skip/skim these if you like.

The historical feel is really good. Most of the characters are “gentlemen” or their servants so their’s is a particular rarified world of the early 19th century British aristocracy. I know quite a bit about this era and it felt pretty characteristic. The Napoleonic Wars are well researched, but they aren’t front and center, serving more as a backdrop. This all has a very British slant to it, which is accurate from the British perspective. I.e. Napoleon is a bit of a bogey man. While the British felt this way, it was mostly propaganda. I’m actually a pretty big Bonaparte fan — he did a lot to shake up and form the modern era — even if he was a “tad” aggressive. The 19th century British Empire was itself staggeringly arrogant and well… imperialistic. But anyway…

I also liked the way the book handles issues of enchantment and perception. This is a very fairy oriented magic — as is appropriate to a historically based English Magic — and it’s treated deftly with a strong sense of the fey. Many of the characters are under strong enchantments, preventing them for hundreds of pages from realizing something which seems rather obvious to us readers. This is both fun and frustrating.

If the book has any problems (besides being a bit long) it’s that the end isn’t entirely satisfying. Things are not really explained to either the characters or the readers. They are wrapped up, but not clarified. So I had the feeling of a grand build up without appropriate payoff. But I did enjoy the journey. This is clearly one of those huge first novels that was like 10 years in the crafting — making it unlikely the author will every exactly repeat the phenomenon.

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City of Bones

Title: City of Bones

Author: Cassandra Clare

Genre: YA urban fantasy

Length: 460 pages, 131,000 words

Read: August 17-19, 2011

Summary: Fun until the end

ANY CHARACTER HERE

City of Bones is the first in a series of fairly typical urban paranormal. We have a girl who thinks she’s nothing special, but she discovers she’s part of this whole world of demon hunters, fairies, vampires, werewolves, etc. And right under our noses in New York City!

Seen that before?

Well yes. Certainly one of my biggest problems with this book is just how similar it is to lots and lots of other late 2000s urban fantasy. It’s much like Holly Black‘s stuff (White Cat, Tithe), but with a bit less atmosphere. In fact, the two authors are friends and share the same agent (coincidence?). But City of Bones is similar to a lot of other things as well. At times there’s a wee bit of a unique feel involving the Shadowhunters (that’s what this book calls the demon hunters clan the protagonist hooks up with). Just a little. There’s certainly very very little rooting in any kind of traditional mythology, but instead a whole hell a lot of stuff stolen from contemporary pop myth. Werewolves and vampires both, and guess what? They hate each other. Author Cassandra Clare started off as a Harry Potter fanfic writer, and that shows because she borrows a lot from HP. But not what you’d think. There’s next to no similarity of feel, no wizard school, etc. Instead City of Bones borrows things like naming conventions and loose bad guy structure. Names like “Pangborn” and the like. The evil guy (who faked his death) is back with a “Circle” (ahem Death Eaters) and their’s more. Clare loves capitalized terms like “The Circle,” “The Uprising,” “The Institute.”

Still, for at least the first 50-60% I really enjoyed reading this novel. It’s well written. Albeit overwritten. I can’t understand how the hell they let her through the gates at 130k words. At least 15% could be cut with just a good line edit and there are long long dialog exchanges that are either datadumps or serve only as barbed chatter between the male and female leads. The POV is a little wonky too, 95% of the time focusing on the female lead (Clary), but occasionally shifting to the male or even a baddy. Clary’s very very typical. She’s pretty, but thinks she isn’t. She dives into crazy life threatening fight scenes time and time again, but has no skills herself. But somehow you don’t mind her. In fact she’s pretty likeable. The male lead (Jace) is less typical. He’s genuinely obnoxious (verbally) but mostly tries to do the right thing in deeds. His aloof self is actually pretty well crafted, although annoying at the same time. There is some good tension in the interpersonal stuff — although not even the whiff of sex, which would have spiced it up.

All this criticism aside, I did actually enjoy the first half of the book. I even said to my wife half way: “I’m reading one of those rare urban fantasy’s that’s actually good.” Truth be told, there’s all sorts of drivel I don’t finish and don’t mention on my blog. City of Bones is a long book, and I flew through it to perhaps the 75% mark. I can’t exactly say what made it enjoyable, but it was. Despite the pretty derivative scenario, the characters were engaging for the most part. Clare’s a good action writer — not perfect, but her action scenes are to the point and clear. There’s a definite urban feel to things. Sometimes a little too much as this is one of those worlds where the fantasy types spend a lot of time at clubs posing as hip weirdos. They have “cool” swirly tattoos too (in this context quotes = sarcasm). There are twists and turns and reveals. Some of the big ones you can see a mile coming. Like the deal with Clary’s father. I guessed that one about page 20. The hints were slathered on like a redhead with the sunblock.

Really the only thing that prevents this book from being a solid guilty pleasure (it was never aimed at classic), and me from starting in on the sequel (which people say is actually better), is the cheesy final showdown. It totally lost me. Mired and tortured me in fifty pages of “bad guy gives lots of Scooby Doo explanation in the middle of a fight.” Yeah, he’s like stabbing with a sword and he has time to get about three pages of dialog in during each stroke. We even have this cheesy flashback from one of the older characters (a werewolf named Lucian — we’ve never seen that before!) to a supposedly crucial scene right around the time of Clary’s birth. A big flashback at the 85% point? It’s the only one in the book too. A couple lines of dialog would have told us what we needed to know. The whole end just felt forced. Clare should have kept the villain off screen or something, because he was so ham-handed he was begging for a slice of pineapple. Which is a shame, because there was enough craft in the other characters that I actually grew to like them.

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