Calamity: A Review

This review is spoiler-free.

Good news: This book wasn’t as bad as some books I’ve read recently!

Bad news: It also wasn’t very good.

As the third book of a trilogy, this book had some living up to do. The first book was wildly creative and excellent. The second was a bit lacking, but still twisty and enjoyable. The third needed a bit more time in the incubator and some serious me-time with the author.

The characters were excellent, but… only in ways that carried over from previous books. Phase 1 characters— introduced back in Steelheart— were for the most part excellent and just as fun as ever. Phase 2 characters— from Firefight— continued being themselves (but didn’t grow in any way). Phase 3 characters— completely new to this book— had almost no bearing on the book’s emotional impact. In writerly terms, Phase 1 were dynamic. Almost everyone from Phase 1 had some sort of development or fleshing out to do. Phase 2 were static. They didn’t change, but they still felt alive. Phase 3 were cardboard. With one exception (based on spoilery things, one character could have been considered Phase 2 or even Phase 1), these characters just didn’t add anything of meaning.

But how can I say that? Surely they added something. Why else would they have been introduced? Well, they changed the plot, aiding or opposing the main characters in some way. But no Phase 3 character (with the aforementioned exception) had any bearing on any Phase 1 character arc. No Phase 2 or Phase 3 character had any arc to speak of.

Let’s keep examining the book, though. Perhaps these books are t0o short for dynamic characters to emerge in the third act of a trilogy. Perhaps there are redeeming factors in the other aspects of the book. (more…)

On Writing Beautifully

Beautiful words are daunting.

Well, let me restate.  Trying to write beautiful words is daunting.  Beautiful words are beautiful— it’s the writing that gets hard.

Neil Gaiman.  Laini Taylor.  Patrick Rothfuss.  These people have beautiful words flowing from their pens on every page.  Maggie Stiefvater.  Cornelia Funke.  Miriam Joy.  (Yes, I’m including her, because, guys, her book.)  With all of these people, it seems like they roll out of bed spouting poetic prose.  Even their headdesks are eloquent.

Then there’s me, who’s still trying to get his protagonist’s head on straight.  I can maybe make one pretty word in a million, but a whole string of them?  That makes me headdesk, and that just emphasizes the point: I am not naturally poetic.  Those of you following the Teens Can Write, Too! blog might have noticed by now: John Hansen posted this exact complaint a couple days ago, about his own writing.  We have this in common, I guess.  Pretty writing is not natural to us.  In his post, John affirms that it’s okay to use Orwellian prose (prose as a clear window to the story, not distracting), and your personal style is always better than copying someone else’s.  He’s right.

Some of my favorite authors have very clear, Orwellian prose.  Brandon Sanderson is the most notable; several times on Writing Excuses, he’s claimed— even boasted of— his non-poetic style.  It’s true.  He tells his story plainly, without any of the frills or vivid descriptions that often characterize fantasies.  He writes what the story needs and no more, preferring to emphasize his setting, his plot, and his characters.  Personally, I set more store in those three things than the style of a book.  As long as the words are serviceable, I’m fine with them.  I’m not going to dock points for plain prose.

Especially at the beginning of a writer’s learning curve, I’d rather have a coherent plot and good characters than pages of brilliant writing.  Without purpose, those words are useless.  It’s more important for a learning writer to gain skill at creating and developing a story than at obsessing over the Right Word.

If I agree with everyone, why am I writing this? (more…)

Beginnings as Guides

The beginning of a story is like its pitch.

I think that’s easy to prove.  A pitch must engage a reader and make them curious about the story itself— a beginning must do much the same thing, except it gets more words and leads into the rest of the story.  The pitch acquaints the reader with the type of story it is— a beginning does exactly the same, but in more depth.  Really, a beginning is just a beefed-up pitch.  That’s why it’s so important, and so difficult.

A pitch boils a story down into a couple words that are each loaded with meaning.  Wizards at boarding school— each word there has a very specific meaning to generate the correct picture.  Jane Austen with magic— again, each word is loaded with meaning (except the prepositions, of course).  We all know Jane Austen’s style of writing, and we all have varying ideas of magic.  We don’t need to know exactly what the magic is yet, but those four words are enough to conjure up the perfect image.  Pitches like these use combinations of familiar words with specific connotations to create something new and interesting.

But notice, pitches never include the names of the characters, or the name of the magic, or specific syntax from the story.  Harry defeats Voldemort at Hogwarts— if you didn’t know those terms already, that would mean nothing to you.  It’s one way to pitch the story, but it doesn’t work unless you take some time to introduce each of those terms.  (Note that this sort of pitch can be used for a sequel, because the syntax has already been established.)  Because of these restrictions, pitches must only use terms the layman can understand— words that have very specific meanings, yet are still common to almost everyone’s vocabulary. (more…)

Getting Rid of Parents (Fiction Only)

Many difficulties come standard in the task of writing child protagonists.  To a certain point, a person is a person no matter how small, but there are subtle differences in younger characters.  Their behavior can be slightly different from that of an adult— less logical at times, or not quite sure of morals yet.  Their physical limitations, of course, must differ.  A ten-year-old boy cannot take the same amount of knocks on the head as the adult hero of an epic fantasy (there is considerable debate on whether the hero himself can take that many hits realistically, but the point remains).  Most importantly, however, there is a child’s place in society to consider.

Any middle grade fantasy will grind to a halt when the child’s parents decide she can’t cross the street without permission.

But books about children have been around for centuries, from the Brothers Grimm to C.S. Lewis.  Many people have solved this problem for their stories, many different ways. (more…)

Romantic Tension and Why Love Triangles Hurt

A romance is never just about the romance.

Whether subplot or main plot, a romance plot line is not about the love itself.  It’s about the process of falling in love.  Now, as we know well from Disney, that process can take place within the space of a single song.  Unfortunately, that’s a three-minute character arc.  Romance introduced— romance over with.  Everyone is bored, let’s get back to the explosions.

That’s why romance is never just about the romance.  Romance can be a really quick thing, but we need it to take longer.  We need it to cover hundreds of pages, ramping up conflict and tension between characters as they near the climax.  If we introduce and finish the romance quickly, it’s ineffective, not worth including.  Either that, or really good for a joke.

If left to itself, a romantic plot line would resolve itself in less than three minutes, with song, dance, and birdies chirping.  That’s why you can’t leave it to itself.  You have to figure out a way to slow it down, while making it feel like it can’t possibly go any faster.  You have to create romantic tension.

Romantic tension is what allows a romance plot to slow down and yet remain engaging.  The reader knows two people ought to get together, but something is keeping them apart— even though it’s hardly life or death, that much tension can keep the reader reading in this style of plot.  How to create romantic tension?  One word: obstacles. (more…)

Jokes, Gobbledygook, and Cardboard Cutouts

Over the past week, I’ve pondered many things, but none of them long enough— or originally enough— for them to merit entire posts.  Because I’m too lazy to expand them, here are a series of partial posts that will hopefully all make sense on their own.  Feel free to comment on one, comment on all three, or bring up something completely different.  They are yours to expound upon or ignore as you will.  I hope you get something out of each.

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Humor

Humor is important, as I’ve said many times.  In fact, this last week, I used humor as a tool more than I ever have.  I made more people like me in that week than in months in other places.  Correctly placed, it is a tool.  Incorrectly placed, it destroys just about everything you work to build.  But I’ve posted on that before, so I’ll let that lie.

Brandon Sanderson believes humor can be cultivated into the tool I mentioned, every time you need it.  Many others believe humor is spontaneous, a gift for those lucky enough to have an edge.  More and more, I’m finding Sanderson’s opinion correct.  He’s not a funny fellow, all by himself and spontaneous.  But when you give him the time, he writes killingly funny quips.  He’s admitted to purposefully raising his humor level in books, especially Warbreaker.  While he isn’t quick on his feet as, say, Howard Tayler, he knows the system of humor and uses it as a tool.

Moral of the story: humor is a tool, not something you’re born with.  Practice it, perfect it, and use it. (more…)

Words of Radiance: A Review

It’s going to be hard, but this review is spoiler-free.  This book is still fresh on shelves, and it’s difficult to get a copy if you’re not into purchasing car-sized books at their hardcover premium.  However, I can’t wait to share my thoughts with you, so as I said, spoiler-free.  I’ll do my very best.  Also, Words of Radiance is book two of the Stormlight Archive, so if you haven’t already read The Way of Kings, you should probably do that before trying to read this.  Just a suggestion.

How do I even begin?  I adored this book.  It feels like it’s been too long since I’ve had a Brandon Sanderson book to read— I’ve only read novellas or short stories of his recently, and I wanted an epic fantasy.  (I actually believe I read through Sanderson’s existing works too quickly, believe it or not; when I ran out of them, I went into withdrawal.)  This was a welcome change.  I loved being back in Roshar (the world) with the grand cast of characters.  I’d list them all, but I’ve just found I can’t remember how to spell many of them, and I’m not sure whether those names would be considered spoilers or not.  (As Sanderson himself said once, admitting that there is a sequel is technically a spoiler for the first book.) (more…)

Extra-Credit Mysteries

When I was younger, I read a lot of Encyclopedia Brown.  In case you don’t know, those books are structured uniquely: each book contains five or six stories about Encyclopedia Brown investigating some type of mystery.  At the end of each story, Encyclopedia Brown would have solved the mystery, but the question was put to readers as well— they could figure it out for themselves before finding the real answer in the back of the book.  It was like a book of narrative riddles, meant to cultivate a group of miniature Poirots and Marples.

I never waited to figure out the answer myself.  I always flipped to the back of the book immediately and read the answer.  I enjoyed wondering, then being satisfied, more than I did solving the mystery myself.  After all, if the author had already figured out the answer, why waste time on it?  I was perfectly happy to let someone else do the work, as long as they got it right.

However, when I was forced one way or another to try and figure out the solution myself, I never enjoyed it.  The work was already done— why did I have to repeat it?  Furthermore, I read Encyclopedia Brown so I could enjoy his superior brain power, not so I could (gasp!) learn something.  I wanted to see how smart he was and enjoy that.  Once I was forced to unravel the mystery myself, however, it became less enjoyable and more difficult— work, not play.

To a certain point, readers feel the same way about mysteries in other areas of fiction.  The mystery is there to be solved, but by the main character, not by the reader; the same way that the epic battle is there to be fought by the main character, not by the reader.  The reader has no input in the story, no say in what happens.  Thus, if the readers solving the mystery won’t help, why do it?  It’s just extra work. (more…)

Fulfilling Promises Halfway Through

Promises.  You make them to create hooks, you fulfill them to create satisfaction, and you ignore them to keep things from being too satisfying too soon.  I’ve spoken about this in depth before.  The general idea, however, is that readers keep reading because they’re looking for the fulfillment of each promise– whether the promise is unraveling a mystery, or defeating an antagonist, or learning from mistakes.  At the end of the story, all the promises are fulfilled all at once, creating enormous satisfaction.

But the end of the story isn’t the only place to fulfill promises.  Most promises are fulfilled at the very end of the story, sure, but a promise could be fulfilled as soon as it’s made, and anywhere between there and the end.  But as always, there are problems inherent in this technique. (more…)

Concrete Magic

Magic systems don’t have to be anything.  They’re magic, after all– for all of Sanderson’s Laws of Magic Systems, magic doesn’t have to be anything.  You could have a magic system where a different thing happens every time someone gets peanut brittle stuck in their teeth, with no rhyme nor reason to what happens to whom.  Or you could have a strict magic system that only works when the moon is full and the porcupine has molted its sixty-ninth quill, at which the magic makes a slight whistle.  It can be powerful, it can be subtle; it can come whenever someone burps, or only when the seventh son of a seventh son stomps his foot.  Magic systems can be whatever you want.

But if you want a strict magic system, there are certain things you can do to maximize its effect.

Brandon Sanderson is known for magic systems.  He already has his three laws of magic (which again, are known to be optional, thus disproving the label “laws”).  Each of his books holds a different system (or at least a different insight on a system).  By the end of any of his books, you’re an expert on whatever magic he created, without ever being pulled out of the story.  But the most powerful thing about his systems are their concreteness.

In Elantris, magic stems from runes drawn in the air.  In the Mistborn trilogy, powers come from “burning” metals, accessing weird acupuncture, or storing abilities in metals.  In The Rithmatist, chalk drawings come to life.  If you notice, none of them come from mentally “reaching out” to hidden entities that can only be “sensed” with a “corner of the mind”.  That’s what I mean by concrete. (more…)