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.

For more posts on writing, click here.

Or for my full list of book reviews.

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.

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.

For more book reviews, click here.

For posts on writing, click here.

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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Kushiel’s Dart

Title: Kushiel’s Dart

Author: Jacqueline Carey

Genre: Epic Historical Fantasy

Length: 912 pages, 315,000 words!

Read: June, 2011

Summary: Long, overdone, but intriguing

ANY CHARACTER HERE

This book itself as Fantasy, but it’s certainly not your typical one. Really it’s a sort of reinterpreted epic (and I mean long) historical romance — without much of the modern sense of romance (almost none). But it does have plenty of the traditional, more atmospheric form.

This is a flowery first person narrative about a slave girl brought up as a sort of high end courtesan who gets involved — very involved — in politics. I’m going to try and break down and discuss various elements of the work.

It’s worth noting the tremendous length. The book is 900+ pages and feels it. I enjoyed it, but it’s like four novels glued together. This lends it a decidedly Gone with the Wind effect. Just when you think it should be over (except for the fact that you have 650 pages to go!) everything switches up and it moves on to a new stage. This happens several times.

First the setting. With the exception of a bit of prophecy and one large scale pseudo divinity (the Master of Straights) at about the 85% mark this novel really has no magic. And in fact, is actually a sort of disguised work of Historical Fiction. The Fantasy is more the invented nature of the tale than any actual magic. As best as I can tell the whole thing is more or less set in a reinvented thirteenth or fourteenth century France. It felt late medeval or early Renaissance. At times I wondered if it even had overtones of Carolingian (ninth century France). The names of the places and faiths are all changed, but in a recognizable way for those of us who know our European history. Rome is “Tiberium,” Spain “Aragonia,” the Germanic tribes the “Skaldi.” Carey does a good job of this, and her grasp for the flavor and cultures of Europe between the fall of Rome and the modern era extremely solid. The central nation of the novel feels both troubadour French and even a little Late Venetian Republic at times. There are plenty of deviations from real history. First an foremost the loosey goosey religious situation (as opposed to the dogmatic Catholic church). The religions have been reinterpreted and the nation founded by what appears to be an interesting mating of Jesus and Dionysus. An intriguing (and Romantic) mythical entity who was also followed around by a bunch of demi-god disciples who seeded various schools or bloodlines. Overall, the setting was probably my favorite part of the novel.

The voice. At first I loved the voice. Yeah it’s flowery. Girly. Really girly. And full of words that the Kindle dictionary informed me were “archaic” or just chosen for plain weighty flavor. Words like “limned” or “ague.” The sentences have an unusual and formal structure. There is a LOT of reppetition. This began to wear on me. Carey reminds you like 50 times who everyone and everything is, which considering the vast cast of characters and the incredibly complex political situation might be necessary for those that don’t have a semi-photographic memory or an obsessive knowledge of European history. The narrative is first person, and told from some unspecified far future point in Phedre’s (the protagonist) life. It’s the antithesis in many ways of my own voice, as it’s really really really heavy on the TELL and fairly light on the SHOW. Carey loves to insinuate before the action (when it occasionally occurs, separated by many many pages, but often enough given the titanic length of the book) that things won’t turn out as planned, or that something bad is about to happen. Lots and lots of stuff is done with narrative summary. I myself try to set everything in scene and tell it as it happens in a more hard boiled style, more like the Maltese Falcon or the Big Sleep, even if the subject matter is very different. Carey chooses a more sentimental approach. But at the same time I found the voice very distancing. A lot of this is the feeling that it is written looking back on events, which removes a lot of the tension inherent in the action. The rest is probably the TELL factor.

I liked the whole sex-slave-girl-bondage-courtesan angle. But Phedre is a little too good at just about everything other than pure agressive bravery, and she has her constant companion the warrior-monk for that. While bad things do happen to her, she pretty much flawlessly reads every situation and is titanically lucky / unnaturally talented. I still kinda liked her. And the fact that she has a lot of edgy sex is good. The book alternates between graphic and evasive in this realm, which ends up being more teasing than satisfying. Still, I guess normal people might find it dark.

Now the overall affect of this novel is pretty good. It starts off great. But it sometimes bogs under volumes of political talk I found excessive — and I read multivolume political histories for pleasure! Some of the sub-adventures (like Phedre’s time as a Skaldi slave) are really good and there are lots of varied settings, cultures, and characters. I also really enjoyed the depth of world building and the alternate but very “realistic” religious mythos. But…

There is absolutely no psychological realism to any of the characters, our protagonist included. The central condition of Phedre’s nature is supposed to be that she finds pain and suffering intrinsically hot. Even this isn’t really handled totally consistently. The rest of the people — while interesting and possessed of different traits — merely serve the story or the need to roster out a bunch of interesting types. The don’t feel exactly cardboardy, as they are detailed, but unlike the completely brilliant Game of Thrones, there is no fundamental relationship between the different nature of different personalities, their situations, and the decisions they make and the consequences those decisions bring.

In the end, I found the way in which things just sort of grandly worked out for Phedre tedious. The big war at the end is complex, but summarized, and the wrap up phase of the story nearly 100 pages. Carey also just loves to throw in grand and sumptuousness just for it’s own sake, which at the beginning felt lush, but by the time Phedre has dressed in 62 elegant gowns a bit much.

Still, I kind of liked the book, if only for its world and its very creative reinterpretation of medeval/renaissance fantasy. At times it reminded me of Guy Gavriel Kay, but his works felt somehow a bit more connected to place and certainly more emotional.

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Sophomore Slump – Delirium

Title: Delirium

Author: Lauren Oliver

Genre: Dystopian YA

Length: 114,500 words, 441 pages

Read: May 17-21, 2011

Summary: Big disappointment.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Earlier in the week I read Lauren Oliver’s debut novel Before I Fall and loved it. So I eagerly downloaded her second book, Delirium, on my Kindle/iPad and set to reading. Ick.

She’s a very good writer, and the prose style is nearly identical, being first person present from the POV of a 17 year-old girl. For all it’s flaws (I’ll get to those), the voice is still very good, and makes for compelling reading at first. Oliver’s still great at inner monologue.

But everything else falls pretty flat.

Let’s begin with the premise. First of all, it feels like someone told Oliver that “dystopian is hot” and she jumped on the bandwagon. As far as I can tell, she shows no knack for it whatsoever. And worse, she pushes in this direction at the expense of her considerable talents elsewhere. This version of America exists an ill-defined period in the future, probably around 2050-2075. The central premise of the society is that LOVE has been diagnosed as a disease and the source of all societal ills. But fear not, a cure exists, some kind of magic brain surgery that gets rid of most feeling and desire. Everyone gets this at 18, because conveniently, that’s the age “the cure” works at.

Now besides this ludicrous premise, which involves a drastic about face of human tenants consistant since the dawn of time, we have to accept that in 50 years almost no technology has changed. Sure there are a few nasty totalitarian rules and such, but they still use cell phones, they still text. The book has absolutely NO description of anything different other than attitudes. Hell, there was probably more innovation between 1300 and 1350 than shown here! I just completely didn’t buy the world. Not one bit. There’s no way we could get from here to there. And it’s been done to death before. Better. Delirium is like a lame The White Mountains crossed with Uglies. Both books are far better (particularly the first). The whole thing felt entirely forced, like it was all derived from the high concept premise without any other consideration.

In Before I Fall, Oliver showed herself adept at painting peer groups. This is hard stuff, and fascinating when done well. But we don’t have it here. We have a protagonist, who isn’t bad, albiet a little generic, but then we don’t have too much else. Next up we have the romantic interest and best friend — both okay also. But that’s it. The other characters are like cardboard cutouts. I find this hard to jive with her first book where even the minor characters are deftly drawn.

Also in her first book was an intricate and cleverly woven progression of plot and character, while not perfect, it formed a lovely little puzzle unfolding across the length of the novel. And most importantly, giving a sense of emotional depth.

So what happened? I’m forced to conclude that either: 1) she spent much much longer writing her first book and really polished the hell out of it (nothing wrong with that) or 2) that she should have stayed more firmly rooted in the familiar early 21st century as the complexities of world building (even this minimally) sucked her focus.

Or both.

Still, I do have to give her credit for prose skills. They pulled me enthusiastically through the first third, then groaning and moaning through the rest. If it hadn’t been for this I would have chucked it in the middle and you wouldn’t have seen the review (I rarely review the many books I give up on — doesn’t seem fair).

I’m sad. It could have been so much better. I have nothing against dystopian — I am after all a hard core sci-fi reader — I’d have read nearly anything she gave me and enjoyed it if she just provided some reason to care.

For a review of Before I Fall, click here.

Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing

Title: Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft

Author: David Morrell

Genre: Writing Guide

Length: 240 pages

Read: May 21-22, 2011

Summary: Very good.

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Having just finished the first draft of my second novel I did what I always do after a draft: take a little time to consider my craft (and not look at the book). So I pulled this puppy off my stack of books on writing. I’ve read a lot of such books, and this is one of the better ones in it’s category.

They fall into a number of broad groups: books on specific components like plot or character, books on sentences, books on editing, books on selling your books, books on summarizing your books, windy pontifications on the nature of creativity, and this type, the bit of everything, with a dose of personal experience thrown in. Lessons is a lot like Lawrence Block‘s Telling Lies for Fun & Profit. Both cover a bunch of the big areas quickly like plot and structure, and also include the author’s personal perspective on his career (Morrell’s best known for First Blood, on which the first Rambo was based) and the writing business. It does not focus heavily on sentences or editing.

There were a number of interesting insights. He has a technique for getting past sticky points in your story construction I might try (next time it happens). There were also some interesting technical thoughts on the structure of scenes and chapters. He has a perspective on selecting POV that I hadn’t come across, which was interesting. Although he is slightly dated in his opinion of first person stating that he feels it always needs a reason why the narrator is telling the story. This used to be the case, but in the last few years the rise of first person (particularly in YA) was sort of negated this.

A good chunk of the book is about his career, optioning books to Hollywood etc. This was amusing as well. He started in the early 1970s so he’s a product of that different era in publishing. The book was written in 2002 and while none of the writing advice is dated, the advent of ebooks and changes in the market are shifting the business side. Still, good writing is still good writing, and even writing style itself doesn’t change all that fast. Books I’ve read by authors whose prime was the 1950s still have plenty to offer. Last weekend I read The Postman Always Rings Twice, published in 1934, and that hardly seems dated.

So if you like books on writing and plan to read many, I’d check Lessons out. While that doesn’t sound like spectacular praise, I do like this book. Many writing books I read are total drivel. This one was worth the time, and that says something.

Some of my favorites are: