Weekend Draft

I just finished the rough cut of the third major draft of my new novel, Untimed. Just in time too to get out of town.

This weekend will be quiet and post free. I’m off to Vegas with the Foodie Club for some more high end gluttony. Namely Twist by Pierre Gagnaire and  É by José Andrés (my review of the comparable Saam here).  You can expect detailed coverage when I get back.

For more on the revision process, see this recent post.

Or for more 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.

For more book reviews, click here.

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.

For more book reviews, click here.

Introducing the Writing Index

In my continued effort to improve site navigation I’ve introduced a new page to index all my writing posts, sorted by topic. You can also find it in the “Writing” menu at the top of the site or by clicking on the gold “Writing” icon on the righthand sidebar.

As an added bonus, the page includes a blurb of my new novel, Untimed, check it out.

Storm Front

Title: Storm Front

Author: Jim Butcher

Genre: Paranormal Noir

Length: 384 pages, 87,100 words

Read: July 5-7, 2011

Summary: Fun read, decent noir redux.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

This novel has the amusing premise of taking the straight up traditional noir detective novel, like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, and giving it a modern paranormal spin. Now it isn’t the first book to do this, Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake series is more or less on this model, but Butcher clearly read his source material.

It begins with the detective (ahem… wizard) in his office, and the case initiated by the lip chewing lady. Lets first address the success of this book as a piece of entertainment, then we’ll get into it’s loyalty to it’s sources. The book works. It’s a very fun read, catches you early on with the voice, and moves along at a good clip. I’d have sworn it was 250 pages and not 384. It has it’s flaws, but it’s fundamentally a good piece of entertainment. Compare to the somewhat similar Dead Witch Walking which I started recently but stopped halfway.

The voice is fun. Hardboiled, but not nearly as much as Dashiell Hammett‘s masterpiece upon which it seems loosely modeled. Harry Dresden (the wizard/detective protagonist) is observant and engaging, but he lets you know through interior monologue what he thinks about the situation. True hard boiled only implies or tells just a little. They remain much more oblique in terms of the character’s inner life, despite being first person. Now given that there’s a lot of magic and supernature creatures in Storm Front, being upfront probably helped the clarity. Even if it did occasionally leave me with a tiny feeling of too much TELL. The prose is pretty witty too — again not Hammett witty — but good, and very clear.

The characters varied from excellent (Harry, Bob, the mob boss) to just fine. The villain was kind of weak. Actually more than kind of weak. Fairly cardboard. Morgan (the memory of the White Wizard’s council who watches our hero) was a paper thin twerp too. The plot had plenty of good elements, and moved like lightning, although at times it felt contrived to keep Harry in maximum jeopardy. There seemed no reason he shouldn’t have trusted his police partner a bit more, as the only thing doing so would have cost him is a lot of worry and a whole lot of bruises.

The magic system and supernatural creatures were good too. Handled with a deft brevity as this book has plenty of creatures: vampires, fairies, wizards, etc. but they didn’t bother me — and I’m picky here. Although only the amusing little fairy stood out. A lot (like the vampire) were used jump because. The feel of many elements, like the potions and the fairies, was a bit tongue and cheek, but fit.

True to it’s noir roots, the book is pretty dark, with grisly murders and (off screen) sex. But by being supernatural, and more importantly campy, it looses that black edged moral ambiguity that the best classic noir had, making it just a fun read, free of any real comment on the human condition.

For more book reviews, 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.

A Dance With Dragons

Title: A Dance With Dragons

Author: George R. R. Martin

Genre: Epic Fantasy

Length: 959 pages, circa 400,000 words

Read: July 12-23, 2011

Summary: Awesome, but not without issues.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

My charge through book 5 of Martin’s epic fantasy series was a bit drawn out by my need to concentrate on the second draft of my new novel Untimed, but I finally finished. Before I launch in, it should be noted that this review is full of spoilers.

Dance is huge, weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages. This itself is actually a welcome and comforting fact because these books are something to savor. Overall, I would rate this volume as better than A Feast of Crows and slightly worse than the first three. Still, it’s a fantastic book. Prose-wise, Martin is still a master at both people, places, plotting and reversals. It’s just that this book suffers from a few pacing and structural issues.

Most of these stem from his controversial decision to pull out half the characters from the bloated manuscript of Feast and push them into Dance by themselves. So the first two thirds of the new book is everyone who didn’t get a turn in Feast. Now, for the most part, this saved the best for last. Dany, Jon, and Tyrion make up the bulk of the book, particularly this first two thirds, and they are some of my favorite characters. But overall this leaves both Feast and Dance feeling a little more threadbare than the first three books. Personally I think he would have been much better off winding out the story chronologically, trimming out some useless threads (Aeron Damphair, Victarion, and probably the Dornes), and rearranging the plot so as to have some kind of sub-climax at the end of each book.

As it is, Dance reads excellently for the first 2/3, feeling fairly focused on its three mains. But it’s weird to rewind in time and revisit certain happenings from Feast from the other side (for example Sam leaving the Wall). When we get to the cut off point, however, some of the characters from Feast start to weave back in. This mostly has the effect of slowing the narrative and making it more diffuse. At least until the set of cliffhangers and deaths that come in the final chapters.

I also think that Martin is letting his pacing slip a bit. It’s not that each chapter isn’t entertaining and well written — they are — but many threads there have multiple chapters where the happenings could’ve been collapsed without loss. If we hadn’t known a few of those details were there, we would never have missed them. Worse than the pacing issues, however, is a weirdly increasing fondness for skipping some of the big moments. Now Martin has always done that (the Red Wedding, the “death” of Bran & Rickon, etc) but it’s worse than ever. He has a real tendency to build slowly toward a big event, then skip the event itself, showing what happened to the characters obliquely through other eyes at a much later point.

I’m going to go through some of my opinions and analysis thread by thread.

Prologue

I don’t really understand why fantasy authors are obsessed with these. It was kind of interesting, but didn’t advance anything.

Jon

His thread is fine (until the end), but it does feel a bit static. While he’s certainly grown into command, he mostly sits back at the wall and fields interference between factions (Stannis, his queen, the Red Priestess, the Wildlings) etc. Then at the end, he mysteriously decides to rush off to Winterfell. This is a move that makes no sense as he has refused to enter into family entanglements about six times before, and while he is goaded, there is really less at stake for him. Then out of nowhere comes a reaction to this decision that leaves us in a bad cliffhanger. Boo.

Tyrion

The Imp is funny as always and now I can hear Peter Dinklage cracking each and every droll line. Still his thread is also a little dragged out, although it does involve some great sightseeing and is certainly entertaining all along. In the first part of the book it feels like he (and everyone else) is heading toward Dany, but then he gets within inches and turns back. Using him to introduce us to Griff and “Young Griff” is however an excellent device and works much better than an extra POV would have. It is mostly through Tyrion and Dany that we get a sense of the complex and old slave societies of the mainland. Unlike Westeros which feels like late Medieval England, these realms feel more like the ancient east (perhaps an updated Babylon vibe).

Dany

Her chapters are mostly political. She does feel a bit passive. I don’t really understand why she doesn’t try to get a handle on her dragons earlier, this is obviously a key move which could trump all of her political problems. Instead she dicks around (literally and figuratively) with various factions. This is all fairly entertaining, but feels like treading water. Then “a big event occurs” (at least this one is on screen) and she rides off on Drogon. That’s all great, but her narrative disappears until the last chapter. When it returns nothing is resolved at all, but a new out of the blue cliffhanger is introduced. I do really like the world of Meereen and the slave cities, although it feels like we are lingering here a bit long.

Barristan

The hero serves to replace Dany as the POV in Meereen. He’s actually a great POV character with all his lingering thoughts about events during and before Robert’s Rebellion. I really enjoyed his chapters. But they didn’t come to any resolution.

Theon

The hier to the seastone chair returns to us, a few bits worse for the wear. I hated Theon in books 2 & 3, but I enjoyed his chapters immensely here. His transformation into Reek and back again is very deftly handled, with a very proper (and sordid) period quality. It isn’t for no reason that Tarantino used the phrase “medieval on his ass” and that is exactly what the Bastard of Bolton has done to Theon. His pseudo redemption is good. Still, we have classic Martin avoidance of the action with the actual escape from Winterfell. In the cut between Theon jumping from the wall into the snows and his delivery to his sister is a big blank. Not that we needed the travel, but whatever battle happened at Winterfell needed some detailing.

Asha

I could have lived without her POV. It mostly serves to fill in some parts of Stannis’s story when he leaves the wall. The technique is sketchy and I ended up having no idea what really happened during his brutal snowy march and the seige of Winterfell. This I thought was the weakest part of the book structurally, as I’m basically confused.

Quentin and the Dornes

Cut! Dull for the most part, except for some info about the cultures they traveled through. I couldn’t have cared less for these characters. The attempt to steal a dragon was interesting, but was also vaguely described. I’m thinking that Martin, for all his brilliance as a character and world builder, isn’t actually the best at action scenes.

The Dorne chapter back in Dorne: It was okay, but we didn’t really need it.

Jaime

This sucked. I like Jaime’s POVs, but this single chapter had a bunch of crap, followed by one of those annoying Martin reveals that just serve to highlight the gap in information. Brienne returns and they ride off. You don’t find out how she escaped her predicament, what she knows, anything. It just kinda sucked. The effect of her cliffhanger was entirely spoiled.

Cersei

These were pretty good, and I enjoyed seeing her get hers. Martin certainly knows how to throw in the creepy little details so your mind fills in the rest.

Victarion

Cut! I could have lived without these, and they basically just told you he was heading off to Dany with a horn and a Red Priest. Although he’s better than his brother — I’d take any chapter over Aeron Damphair.

Arya

These were great. I have no idea where they’re going, but that’s fine. Arya has always been one of my favorites. Give us more. To be honest it felt like these were the chapters that should have gone in Feast and this the conclusion that book should have had for Arya’s thread. Probably that was Martin’s original plan.

Bran

His chapters were good, but so little, and it all felt dropped as his last chapter is about midway in the book.

Davos

I’ve never been a fan. I think we could have just had these told by raven.

Epilogue

This was actually very good, really being a Kevan in King’s Landing chapter in disguise. I loved the return of Varys at the end — particularly his dialog.

Some observations: There is more magic of sorts in this volume. Martin has a real thing for nubile slave girls — but then again, what self respecting fantasist doesn’t? The scope of this book, with it’s gigantic foreign cities reminiscent of the ancient world is going to make for some hard adapting should the TV series get this far. As I noted in my series reviews the show already has problems with handling large scale people scenes. These slave cities and the like will make that even harder. Likewise with the slave sex and slave violence. I’m all over it (in fiction) but some of it will undoubtedly have to be cut/changed. Sigh. I like that Martin at least highlights some of the sad reality of actually being a nubile slave girl.

Overall, Martin’s books are among my all-time favorite novels. I enjoyed the book immensely, and eagerly await the the next volume (and I’m sure I’ll be waiting for a long time), but I can’t help but think it could have been SO much better if Martin had taken all the material in both Feast and Dragons and reedited them together into two chronological and slightly leaned down volumes.

Also check out my reviews of each episode of Season 1 of Game of Thrones (the HBO series):

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