Promises

Promises are the lifeblood of your story.  A promise at the beginning is your hook, creating in the reader an expectation that will drive them to finish the story.  When the promise is fulfilled, the reader comes away from the story feeling satisfied that you knew what you were doing.  However, promises are not that straightforward.

When you break a promise, in the reader’s eyes it’s treachery.  (I spoke about that with regard to characters in this post.)  You promised them something awesome—that was why they were reading your story.  But after they agreed to read your story, you ignored them.  You created an expectation, and then pulled the rug out from under them.  That’s bribery.  Unfortunately, you might not even know you’re doing it.  The readers do, however, and it reflects in their reviews.

For instance, one of the silliest parts of the Inheritance Cycle was the very end.  In the third book, Eragon makes a lot of promises to a lot of different people– one in particular to the Menoa Tree, a giant sentient tree that gave him his sword.  In the fourth book, he conquers the evil spreading over the land, solves all sorts of subplots, and then goes to see the giant tree to see what he has to do to complete that promise.  The tree, however, just tells him to go and be happy, or something like that.  That was the biggest letdown of the book.  For two entire books, each the size of a hippopotamus, we thought Eragon would make a terrible sacrifice trying to please this giant tree, and then it suddenly doesn’t matter.  The author didn’t want to make his series any longer (because he wasted so much time on battle scenes), so he dropped his promise.

The problem with promises, however, is how innocuous they seem.  Nowhere does an author say, “I hereby swear to make these two characters kiss by the end of the book.”  But we as readers know the promises exist– otherwise, we wouldn’t stick around until the end of the book.  The author somehow created an expectation without us realizing it.  We know it works for published authors– a good hook and some fulfilled promises can turn unpublished writers into published writers, after all.  So how do we, the unpublished, harness this for our own use? (more…)

Why Middle Books Sag

In many trilogies, the first book is great, the third book is just about perfect, and the second book is horrible.

When you think about it, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence.  The first book has a powerful theme– “Ah I hate the Hunger Games because it’s so horrible and Peeta keeps making things up and I’d like to kill him but for dramatic tension I’m not allowed to.”  (The Hunger Games.)  “I’ve found a dragon egg in the forests of the Spine and now the Ra’zac have attacked my house and I’m off adventuring with my crush who’s an elf and who also happens to be asleep all the time.”  (Eragon.)  “I got swallowed by a hippo and accidentally almost pushed people off a waterfall and got caught up in this quest for a magic word that isn’t abracadabra!”  (Beyonders: A World Without Heroes.)

The third book must tie up this enormous conflict, so if the author is competent the third book will be awesome.  But something happens to the second book. (more…)

Style Over Story

This seems to happen a lot nowadays: I’ll say something that I think is true, and then get turned on my head by something I see a day or two later.

A few days ago, I commented on Charley R.’s blog and said that “I think… it’s better to be born with the ability to craft a great story than the ability to tell one. You can learn to make your prose ring– it’s harder to learn to make original stories.”  That comment got me thinking about Christopher Paolini and how, though he had a good writing style, his stories needed work on the originality front.  I started to wonder why people liked him at all. (more…)

Why Christopher Paolini Succeeded, Sort Of

Christopher Paolini, after publishing the final book in the Inheritance Cycle last November, has dropped severely on the top-ten author lists of YA readers.  Though authors such as Rick Riordan and Veronica Roth have had books published in October or even May of 2011 high on bestselling lists until now, Inheritance is nowhere to be found in Google results for “best young adult books of 2011”.  A lot of people were disappointed with that book and the way the series turned out.  The beginning of one Amazon review reads, “Like a delicate soufflé, rises to an epic climax before collapsing into a tasteless pile of goop”.  And the sad thing is, that synopsis is spot-on.  I apologize to those reading this who haven’t read Inheritance, but I think it’s well-known by now that Inheritance just wasn’t what anyone expected, or what the series needed to finish off.

It’s a whole lot of fun to bash authors that people think are good.  I know I’ve done this on a couple of occasions, with the Hunger Games and Inheritance– but it isn’t really the right thing to do.  If a book is popular, you need to realize why.  You obviously aren’t any better than this author, or you’d be the one with all that fame– so you need to sit down and study the reasons why this author got to the place he did. (more…)

How is it Possible?

How is it possible?  This, my friends, is the question I am asking myself perpetually these days.

Take a gander at the wordcount widgets over to the right on your screen.  If you’re too lazy, I’ll make it easier: it has a really big number on it.  That’s how big my current novel is.  And I’m asking myself, how is it possible?

Truth be told, I don’t know.  I don’t know how I’ve managed to dodge all of the bullets WB is constantly shooting at me.  (WB: abbreviation for Writers’ Bane, an organization devoted solely to the humiliation of writers everywhere.  Donate today!)  Writer’s block, lack of time, pure indolence, broken wrists, debilitating sicknesses, death, what-have-you– somehow, I’ve avoided it all.

It must be that new Repel-All Body Armor I bought off of Percival last month.  It works wonders, though the impervious visor does get a little steamy around midday. (more…)

On the Importance of Humor In Writing

Humor in books– especially children and teen books– is crucial.  It is the most important thing you could ever have– barring a plot, literacy, a minimum of one character and possibly a functioning mind.  But you can get by without most of those– you cannot get by without humor.

Kids see things as funny.  They see the world as funny.  They have a knack for pointing out the ridiculous and the silly.  There is no greater comedian than the child.  They don’t understand why something should be structured– so they do whatever, whenever.  They don’t understand what exactly the point of a conversation on one particular topic is– so they spout out whatever pops into their heads.  This is the basis of randomness.

Barry Cunningham, editor for Cornelia Funke, Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, former editor of JK Rowling, and founder of the Chicken House publishing company, put it the best way in an interview:

“I think humour is so important in children’s books and you find children laughing when they are scared and crying when they are happy. And I cannot think that there is anything in life which is not essentially humorous. Life and death and everything else. That is the central portion of the child in me. I absolutely believe everything comes as part of something else. Like everything serious is funny as well, everything sad is funny as well, everything scary is funny as well.”

“Humor is so important in children’s books…”  So why are there so many dry, boring children’s books?  The reason I like Rick Riordan, Obert Skye, Matt Myklusch, Brandon Mull and John Flanagan so much is because of their humor levels.  Chris D’Lacey, Cornelia Funke, Christopher Paolini, and Gordon and Williams all attempt humor– but don’t always make it quite there.  I still like them because of their creativity, but they aren’t naturally funny writers. (more…)

Where YA Fiction Dies

I remember complaining about limited vocabulary in Rick Riordan’s The Serpent’s Shadow.  A few days ago I railed against James Patterson’s lack of grammar of any kind in his Maximum Ride series.  And I know I’ve raised hue and cry against the lack of creativity in YA fiction today– everything seems to be a spin-off of either Twilight, The Hunger Games, or “Two people meet on the road and decide they like each other so they kiss a couple of times while bad guys die around them.”  I’ve pounded the creativity of writers everywhere because I personally wasn’t seeing much originality.

And now I know why.  It seems that publishers are trying to sell YA fiction not to dedicated readers– dedicated readers will stay dedicated no matter how many horrible books they produce– but to struggling readers.  This type of book is called Hi-Lo books due to its high appeal to low reading levels.  The way a writer makes a hi-lo book is to reduce page count, make the plot linear and simple, and even make larger spaces around the text, creamier pages instead of bright ones, larger type size and pictures.

We seem to be in an age where young adults are children. (more…)

Low Self-Esteem and How to Conquer It

You’d think that reading good books often is inadvisable to young writers because their self-esteem will be crushed, palpitated, then thrown off a cliff for good measure.  For some odd reason, this is not the case.

For young people particularly I can’t think of any better aid to developing your writing skills than by studying how others have done it.  — Chris D’Lacey

Read a lot.  — Christopher Paolini

The best writers are voracious readers.  — Rick Riordan

There are a few quotes from three of my favorite authors.  Notice anything about them?  Yeah, they all say the same basic thing:  Read if you want to write well.  Why do they say this?  Because people get better at what they do if they watch the experts do it first.  Perhaps this is only a bit of self-promotion by these authors, but I think it’s genuine advice.  All of the writers we love, all the writers we admire, they all began simply: they read stuff they liked.  Eventually they began to write, and what we see in bookstores today is what they wished they could have had to read as kids.  I’m serious.  If you don’t write what you’d like to read, you will neither like writing it nor will anyone like reading it.  If you’re enthusiastic, it shows.

But I digress so massively I’m surprised the floor hasn’t begun to slope.

A month ago, whenever I read a good book, part of me would be thrilled (the reader part) and part would be depressed (the writer part).  The trouble was that I recognized good writing.  With a jolt, I’d realize all of a sudden that I wasn’t as good a writer as, say, Alexander Dumas, Rick Riordan, Cornelia Funke, Chris D’Lacey, Leo Tolstoy, or any other you’d care to mention.  Especially with Riordan’s writing, I’d have a bad case of inferiority complex just after finishing one of his books.  I remember finishing the Son of Neptune and writing to one of my friends on how “reading Rick Riordan makes you feel inferior.”  I was just in utter awe of the writer’s prowess.  Now, however, I’m quite happy to note that I’ve gotten over this feeling quite completely.

Unfortunately, I’m slightly ashamed of the reason for this.

You see, I had seen Rick Riordan as a perfect writer who had no flaws.  Though people dock points on reviews for his books having too many typos, I always overlooked that since, well, they weren’t his fault.  It was the typist, after all, who was falling asleep on his typewriter.  It wasn’t the author’s fault that there were gross misspellings and errors in the text.  But at last I found a flaw.

You know the best way to boost your self-esteem?  Find fault in someone else.  I say this half jokingly, since of course no one likes having their mistakes pointed out in a brutal manner.  Politeness and tact is called for, but that doesn’t mean you can’t laugh maniacally in your bedroom as you realize– “Rick Riordan isn’t perfect!”  Just don’t crow it to the world with too big a smile on your face.

Many amazing authors used to make me feel very very inferior.  But do you realize that you learn more from finding the flawed and realizing what could have been done better than from admiring the good stuff?  Most of the time it’s a combination of the two, but usually it’s learning from the mistakes of others that can make you great.  Everyone says learn from your own mistakes– why not learn from everyone else’s, too?

Admiration does not come from just standing and watching a perfect person from afar.  True admiration begins when you see the fault of another, recognize it, and still like the person for what they are.  Isn’t that the lesson countless fairy tales have tried to pound into our heads with a sledgehammer?  Though finding fault with someone may mean the person isn’t as perfect as they first appeared, if you still think the person is great, even though you’ve found that fault, it means they are great indeed.  If you find fault and they no longer have the same appeal to you, they probably aren’t worth your admiration.

In my mind, it is beneficial to find fault.  In moderation.  If you can find fault with someone you admire, it means that you aren’t following them blindly.  If you live to find fault with someone, you’ll soon find yourself not admiring them anymore.  It’s the difference between giving constructive criticism and insulting.

I have finally found Rick Riordan’s fatal flaw, but I admire him nonetheless.  I found fault with Christopher Paolini and admire him much less (but still a lot), since his flaws were more serious.  I found flaws in Obert Skye’s writing, and yet he remains one of the most creative writers I have the pleasure of knowing.  You find flaws with something and you remove the film from your eyes.  You see the person in a new light.  But if the person still seems admirable in that new light, they’re worth the admiration.

Otherwise, they aren’t worth it.  The rubbish bin awaits.

Really, Was That Necessary?

What am I talking about?  My review of the Hunger Games trilogy, of course.

I have never done a review like that before.  (Excuse me as I guffaw loudly.)  My past reviews consisted of me saying “I love the book!  It’s perfect!  What should I read next?”  I’ve never actually analyzed the writing, the story, or the author in the way that I did with this trilogy.  There’s a very good reason for that: I’m not usually looking for the flaws.  It’s true that when you’re looking for flaws, you’ll find a lot of them.

Why was it beneficial for me to do a crushing review?  Well, I need to edit my own writing, and if I can’t be critical with someone else, I can’t count on myself to be critical with myself.  Thus, I went through looking for scenes that should have been cut, grammar mistakes, author cliches, and ill-fitting characters.  If you think about it, I went through the Hunger Games as if I was the author.  No, actually, because I was daydreaming about how I was going to tell the author off about all the flaws.  Maybe I’m taking too much delight in finding things wrong.  Especially when I cackled evilly at finding a weak beginning to the first book, and the mention of a large carnivorous rodent in the second.  Yes, I was having too much fun.

Back to the subject.  If I plan on editing anything ruthlessly, I’ve got to start somewhere.  Everyone knows it’s easier to be critical of someone else than of yourself, so I started on someone else.  Maybe this isn’t the best practice, but I’d like to get on with the post.

When I read anything, I have a first impression.  As I think about the book, I realize more and more that my first impression was wrong.  Thus it was with the Hunger Games.  Thus it was with the Inheritance Cycle.  (Some of you can attest to the fact that I attempted to argue you out of thinking badly of Inheritance.  Well, I’ve had a change of heart.  I still like the book, and I’ll argue about the story all you like, but I’ve found a few flaws.  And it wasn’t because I reread it more critically– only because I thought about it a lot.)  Thus it was with my own writing.  Sometimes, however, I think I’ve found a flaw after thinking about a book for a long time, but when I reread it I find that my worry was unfounded, due to the author adding a detail that I had forgotten.  I forget things a lot, which is why I reread.

Another thing these reviews helped me to do is to analyze the writing, not just the story.  I’ve never bothered myself with the writing before this– just the story.  If you said you didn’t like one author’s writing style, I couldn’t argue, since I didn’t analyze it.  I didn’t understand writing style, what makes it good or bad.  I wish I could say that now I do, but I’m still working on it.

The thing I don’t want to do, however, is read other books as I did the Hunger Games.  To go through books constantly looking for the worst not only is tiresome and time-consuming, but will put the kibosh on many of your friendships with other writers.  People don’t like people who can’t say yes.

In short, I think the latest reviews were quite beneficial, but I shouldn’t let that attitude rule my other reading.  But if you don’t really like the author, it’s quite fun to give his or her work a bad review.  What do you think?

The Hunger Games, a Review

This is a not-so spoiler-free review for The Hunger Games the book, the first book, and only the first book.  (I think you’d be fine reading this even without having read the book.)  Thank you, and have a nice day. (more…)