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…)

Transitions

This is a concept I’ve sat on for months, mentioning it here or there when I needed it. A couple times, I’ve started to write a post about it, but stopped. It seemed too elementary, too high school essay writing class. Transitions are technical, boring– useful, but the world is fully survivable without them. But recently, I’ve begun paying attention once again to transitions. Books, movies, anything with a scene break. Transitions make a story run smoothly.

Transitions are fairly self-explanatory. They bridge from one thing to another. When something is running smoothly, such as paragraphs in a scene, no transitions are necessary. But the moment something breaks, such as a scene, a chapter, or a viewpoint, a transition either exists to smooth it over, or doesn’t.

A chapter ends with a plot twist to make the reader want to keep reading. A transition makes it easy to keep reading. (more…)

Don’t Fear the Metaphor

Let’s do something simple, shall we? Let’s talk about metaphor.

Metaphor, outside of the classroom, is just comparing one thing to another. Within the classroom, that’s split into two groups: similes, for comparisons that are blatantly comparisons, and metaphors, which try to convince themselves that they’re fact. For me, metaphors are split into another few groups. Some metaphors are obvious, included in descriptions and barely free of being similes themselves. Others are invisible, buried deep, akin to Easter eggs left by the author for when their book is studied in literature classes. And the last group? Those are the metaphors I make up myself.

If you have any experience with classroom metaphors, you might already be daunted, or skimming. Metaphors are the kind of thing that you either understand faster than everyone else, or can’t grasp to save your life. Luckily, as writers, we can determine our own metaphor levels. If you understand them well, you can write them at the same level. If you barely grasp them, no one is asking for more than you can give. The only rule: practice.

Depending on your writing style, you will use metaphors differently than anyone else. You might prefer brief, factual descriptions; you might instead lean toward the flowery. Either way, metaphors can enhance your writing, and everyone uses them anyway. Don’t believe me? Describe the taste of turkey. (more…)

How to Find the Purpose of a Scene

Why are  you writing?

Well, obviously because I had a traumatic experience when I was young with a pair of wild gophers, and ever since words have flown from my pen even when it’s capped (it’s rather creepy, actually), so I write as catharsis and to keep quiet the horrible gopher demons inside.

Ah… no.  That’s not what I mean.  When you’re writing a story, or a scene, or even a paragraph, what are you trying to accomplish?  Why are you writing those words?

With delicate things like humor and poetry, knowing your purpose can be as important as knowing how to tell a joke or create beautiful imagery.  A joke without purpose is a joke in the wrong place— it doesn’t add to the emotion, it doesn’t forward the plot.  Instead, laughter will often destroy your hard-earned effect.  (This is why laughing at an insult is so effective.)  In the same way, imagery without purpose is useless.  Imagery that creates a specific emotion is poetry, and readers call it beautiful.  Imagery that isn’t attached to any sort of emotion has no reason to be there, and readers call it purple prose.  Without purpose, both humor and poetry are lost causes.

So how do you figure out your purpose for a scene?  Generally, my purpose in writing a scene is to tell a story, and to tell it well.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell me how to use poetry and humor.  Indeed, trying too hard destroys your ability to tell a story well, so stated this way, my purpose tells me nothing.  But it’s obvious, isn’t it?  Your purpose for any scene is going to change from scene to scene.  That way you don’t just fill a book with the same scene, told the same way, over and over.  As the needs of the story change, your purpose for the scene changes. (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…)

Stylize Your Demise

By the way you make your descriptions poetic or factual, you can manipulate reader reactions.  By giving the facts of a gruesome scene, you can inspire disgust or horror.  By glossing over those facts, you can inspire a more abstract emotion having to do with the way the scene impacts the character– such as sadness, fear, or more tension.  Factual representation gives you an emotional response to those facts, very real and certain.  Abstract representation gives you an emotional response to what this means to the character.  (I covered all this with examples and pitfalls in my post Writing with Style.)

What does this mean for a character death?  In fantasy and science fiction, people die all the time, but the description of that death varies in style.  Sometimes it’s poetic, only showing the gun firing and the character’s battleaxe clattering to the floor as if in slow motion.  Other times it’s very matter-of-fact, showing the gun shooting the character and then moving on.  It isn’t that the factual representation isn’t glossed over– it just isn’t poeticized, shot in slow motion with a tint on the camera and never showing the blood.  It can be gone over in gory detail, or it can be stated and passed over.  All of these styles create a different reaction from the reader. (more…)

Writing with Style

It’s difficult for me to pinpoint what I want out of my writing style.  It’s subjective– some people like florid prose (and manage to do it badly or well, depending on their skill), and some people like utilitarian prose (which also can turn out badly or well).  I don’t know who said it first, but I heard it from Brandon Sanderson: prose is like a window.  It can be transparent, allowing the reader to see the story clearly, or it can be decorative, calling attention to itself and away from the story.  Sanderson’s prose is very transparent; he wants us to see all his plot twists and characters without the distraction of poetry.  Laini Taylor’s prose is decorative; the story is mediocre, but the way it’s told is phenomenal.  Patrick Rothfuss’s prose is hailed as poetic and his story as brilliant.  He writes evenly, leaving the window clear enough to admire the story, yet decorating it enough to admire the prose.  There’s nothing wrong with any of these three writers– they’ve just picked their strengths carefully.  Occasionally, however, writers waver between a clear window and a decorative one.

What’s the problem with that?  There’s always going to be some variation.  Sometimes Rothfuss intentionally obscured some of the story in brilliant storytelling, and in other places intentionally hid the storytelling to make way for some brilliant story.  Neither prose nor story can be considered the epitome of literary art, and variation is natural.  However, blatant variation, allowing the great storytelling’s presence to suddenly contrast with its absence, is a problem. (more…)