Awesome Books You Should Read

2014 is upon us, no doubt to the dismay of doomsday-prophets everywhere. So far it seems suspiciously similar to 2013, but I imagine it will eventually reveal some surprises.

I’ve got an exciting year ahead of me. I’ve sent The Wildfire Crown off to an editor whom should be starting on it soon. It depends a bit on how much more revision I have to do once he hands me back his comments, but I hope to self-publish the novel this spring (April-ish would be nice). Meanwhile I’m hard at work on a new novel I’m calling The Lanterns of Shadesmere which is theoretically going to be the start of a YA-leaning seven book series. I’ve been hard at work on the first section and got a rough draft of the first third or so done during Christmas break, which revealed a number of plot issues I’m trying to fix. I thought I had them nailed but this weekend they rudely informed I still had work yet to do.  Still, I’m very excited about this book and series, and will share more about it later.

I’m headed to the Superstars Writing Seminar again in a couple weeks. It’ll be great to see old friends again. I also managed to nab a coveted spot in the retreat held by the Writing Excuses authors, Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Taylor. It turns out I got pretty lucky, getting up at 6 am Saturday to go for one of 24 spots that about 200 people were vying for. That’s going to be in Tennessee at the end of September.

I had plenty of time for reading over the holiday, and happened across a number of great books that you all should add to your reading lists.

The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie:

Joe Abercrombie, together with George R.R. Martin, writes what many call the ‘grimdark’ flavor of fantasy. I had tried one of Abercrombie’s stand alones a few years ago and didn’t finish it, mostly due to not liking any of the characters. But I’d seen his debut trilogy recommended enough that I finally decided to give it a try, and am very happy I did. Yes, it’s dark, but not hopelessly so. Abercrombie takes characters that feel like fantasy mainstays – the mysterious old wizard, the barbarian warrior, the spoiled young noble – and makes them fresh again. The characters in this series may be my favorite ensemble ever. My favorite isn’t any of the aforementioned but instead a crippled torturer named Glokta. My guess is you don’t think you’d enjoy reading about such a character, a sentiment I would have shared, but Glokta is one of the most brilliantly compelling characters I’ve ever read. It’s a case-study in how to make a reader sympathize with someone who is nearly amoral.

I haven’t quite finished the trilogy, but I suspect the ending won’t exactly be happy. Fortunately a childhood of Stephen King novels has cured me of such hopes, and I’m prepared for whatever gristly spectacle Abercrombie throws at me.

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan

An infamous warrior recalls his childhood where he was torn from his father and given to an order to be trained in battle. The concept here is as familiar as it gets, but man, when it’s done as well as Ryan does it, who cares. Vaelin, the main character, is as compelling and likeable as a character gets, and though there aren’t many surprises, it doesn’t matter, you’ll still be turning the pages as fast as you can. This thing’s got a full five stars on amazon after a ton of reviews. I picked it up after reading a lot of people call it the best fantasy novel they’ve read in years. They’re not wrong.

S by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Now this is cool. I bought S for my dad for Christmas, then immediately snatched it back to read myself. S is a kind of epistolary novel, though I’d call it a meta-book myself. It consists of the novel Sea of Theseus by V.M. Straka, a fictional author, as well as the notes written in the margin by two fictional characters, Jen and Eric,  who end up passing the book back and forth in a library as they try to determine Straka’s true identity, thus creating a story within a story.

Both the inner story, Straka’s novel, and the outer-story about Jen and Eric, are beautifully done. Doug Dorst recreates the style of older literary novels perfectly while also delivering a compelling story. Jen and Eric come to life through their margin-notes and end up being a very likeable pair. I can’t even imagine the difficulty in putting this project together, but it works beautifully.

For today’s video, a cover of the much-covered Lorde song Royals that you should listen to even if you’re sick of the song:

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Merry Christmas

I’m spending my Christmas with family in a cottage in the snowy woods of northern Michigan. Aspirations for writing were high, though reality thus far has provided a more modest output. The good news is I’ve found time to read Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, which I absolutely adored. I’ll be finishing the trilogy as soon as the remaining books are delivered and will likely blog about it in the future.

The good folk over at The Fictorians were kind enough to make me a full time member recently, and my most recent post, about how valuable the support of a good friend is, is up. Check it out if you’d like, I think it’s a nice story.

I hope all my readers find themselves enjoying their holiday, and as always, I recommend augmenting your Christmas experience with one of Pentatonix’s latest videos:

 

 

On Good Writing

Here’s a useful thought exercise I went through recently on writing.

As a writer, I  want to write good novels. This immediately begs the question, what exactly is a good novel?

Most of the time, people interchange the term ‘good book’ with ‘a book I enjoyed’. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, which happens to make answering the question impossible. Take any book and briefly tour the internet for reviews, and you’ll find everything from worship to revilement. It can be sobering, sometimes, to go to the Amazon page of your favorite book, the one that you loved so much finishing it left you feeling empty, the one you thought about for days after, and find that someone else reading the exact same book thought the author ought to be tried for war crimes. (This may lead to fantasies of finding said review and strangling them sane, though I recommend instead eating a cupcake and petting a cat.)

The problem is, this isn’t helpful. We can track the books more people seemed to enjoy (via ratings on Amazon and sales figures) but given that includes everything from Harry Potter to 50 Shades of Grey, it’s not clear what we actually conclude about good books except that, well, they can be about anything.

So going back to the initial question, how does a writer learn to write a better book?

The first problem is with the question itself. It’s so damn broad. Writing a novel isn’t a single skill but rather a big mess of dozens (if not hundreds) of sub-skills. Trying to take them all in account at once is overwhelming.

So if we want to try to write a better novel, we need to narrow the question. First, what type of novel are you trying to write? What genre? What sub-genre? First-person, or third? From one perspective, or many? What tone do you want to achieve? Dark, somber, gritty, pulpy, humorous?

The questions don’t stop there. Take your plot. Is it a comedy, a tragedy, a hero’s journey? How about your setting? Is it merely a back-drop or is it a living piece of the story? Then there are your characters. How sharply are their personalities realized? How true is their dialogue?

The questions don’t stop there, but I will. Point is, a novel consists of hundreds of layers. If we want to analytically describe how to write a better novel, we need to start within these layers. Doing that allows us to ask more precise questions.

Take setting. My current novel is an urban fantasy, which means it’s a version of our world where magic is real. In earlier drafts, the setting wasn’t described at all. There was little-to-no world building. That mean that if I wanted the setting to matter, I wasn’t doing a good job. I had a hole, which once filled, would make my novel stronger.

So how do you write a better novel? First you decide what you want your novel to be, then you decide how each layer would have to work to achieve that goal, then you try to execute. During the first draft, you don’t want to be thinking about all these thing simultaneously – you’d drive yourself insane. Instead, I advocate for using this approach when you edit, when you’re ready to polish.

David Farland talks more about this idea here: http://www.davidfarland.com/writing_tips/?a=91, enumerating dozens of these layers that he tries to improve during his editing process.

Now, will this result in a book a million people will like? That depends on whether your over-arching goal was one that would appeal to that many people in the first place. Figuring that out’s a totally different problem. But I believe there are many books which have the potential to reach that wide of an audience, that fail because they don’t execute well on all these sub-layers.

People generally don’t approach writing this analytically, relying on intuition to guide them. The problem is that then success sometimes feels arbitrary since we don’t always understand why we succeeded (or why we failed).

Though I let my intuition guide me during much of the writing process, I try to step back at times and look for concrete things I can improve. It’s a competitive business and I know that if I ever want to be one of the best, I have to find every edge I can. Even if I learn to nail all the layers, that doesn’t mean I’ll sell well – there’s still the question of writing stories readers will love.

But I think it’s a good start.

 

 

For today’s video, you might be sick of them, but I’m not, here’s Pentatonix doing one of my Christmas favorites!

Ender’s Game

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE BOOK AND MOVIE AHEAD!

I just came back from seeing Ender’s Game. The book had been one of my favorites growing up. I remember coming across it in sixth grade, having never heard of it before. Beyond being a really great story, it posed questions I had never considered about morality and the decisions we must make when confronting an enemy who poses an existential threat to ourselves, our family, or perhaps our entire species.

I read it again in high-school, that and it’s sequels and the (in my opinion, superior) companion novel, Ender’s Shadow, but I don’t think I’ve touched it since then. Coming back to the story through the movie ten years later is interesting. I don’t believe I was equipped to truly understand the enormity of what Ender did and what questions he faced afterward.

Watching the film, I found the characters and their actions less realistic than I remembered, but I don’t think that matters. Not all stories are perfect reflections of the real world but rather thought exercises that let us take perspectives on hard questions that we’d never able to find if we restricted ourselves to reality.

Ender’s philosophy is simple: if you want to be sure, truly sure, that your enemy won’t ever come back and hurt you, you have to hurt him first. Hurt him so badly he’s not ever capable of hurting you again. Don’t just win the first battle, win them all at the same time.

We see this on a smaller scale when Ender confronts various bullies. Ender beats them so badly they die, though in the book this fact is deliberately hidden from him. At the end of the novel we see it in the largest possible scale, when Ender destroys the bugger’s home planet to ensure they cannot harm humanity again.

If you scour the internet you’ll find some pretty extreme opinions on the book, ranging from adulteration to accusations of furthering a fascist agenda. I in particular disagree with the latter, not because I believe what Ender does is right or wrong, but because I don’t believe the book advances anything. It poses questions. I don’t personally feel it offers many answers, not that they are any.

To be fair, it is, in many ways, a very ugly question. Genocide (or, more precisely, Xenocide) is the kind of topic that can make people’s skin crawls even thinking about, much less discussing in depth. Yet it’s not impossible to imagine facing the same scenario Ender did. An incomprehensible alien race who’s wrecked astonishing havoc on us. At what point do we give them the benefit of the doubt? How many people are we okay letting die while we figure out if there’s any chance of peace? Do we need to be 100% sure? 99%? 90%?

These questions are almost certainly what the American leaders faced during world war II, in determining whether to use the atomic bomb against Japan. In the future, they will almost certainly be asked again.

There aren’t easy answers. Maybe there are no answers. Our morality, any morality, are systems devised for living within a society, with neighbors who, largely, aren’t trying to kill us and our entire families. With people who will generally try to be peaceful and follow the rules. But when those rules break, when we are forced to the edges where things aren’t peaceful and clear, when our lives are threatened, our the lives of our family are threatened or the existence of our very species, those rules are stretched in ways they maybe weren’t meant to be stretched. What seemed fair and proper in theory shatters when faced with oncoming cataclysm.

In an analytic sense, these are the edge cases of morality, the ones where the rules don’t work the way we want them to. I don’t know what to do about them. I don’t know what the right approach is our even a method of exploring them, but what I wish is that we discussed them more, not less. That we used the fact that we do live in a largely peaceful time and place to think about what might happen when that peace is disrupted. Because right now, we have time to talk about these things. When you’re fleet, humanities last hope, is days away from the enemy planet, your too late.

Ruined Castles and Ocean Cliffs

I recently got back from a ten-day trip to Scotland with my family, featuring castles, ruins, foggy cliffs, beautiful vistas,  and many, many sheep.

I’d hoped the trip would serve as a mental reset of sorts. Last month I had to get a bunch of medical tests done (nothing bad turned up, thankfully) leaving me stressed and feeling generally negative. Combined with the writing project I mentioned in my last blog not going well and being sick to death of The Wildfire Crown, I wasn’t feeling great about myself and needed a new environment to try to get some fresh perspective.

ShetlandView

Ten days of incredible views and wandering about centuries-old castles did exactly that. Writing’s been going great since I got home. I’m editing Wildfire in preparation for getting it to an editor in December, and working on plotting my next novel, tentatively titled The Lanterns of Shadesmere.  I’ll get started on the actual writing of that project when I attend David Farland’s Writers Mastery workshop next week.

Some highlights:

Alnwick Castle and Alnwick Gardens

Alnwick Courtyard

Alnwik Castle (the ‘l’ and ‘w’ are silent) is where they filmed the exterior shots of Hogwarts for the Harry Potter films. It offers a very complete castle-experience. Massive courtyards,  a long outerwall and rampart, an ornate dining room filled with so much art and craftmanship it feels more like a museum than a place people would actually eat, and even a suitably dank-and-dark dungeon.

Dunnottar Castle

Dunnottar

My favorite part of the trip. Dunnottar Castle is a ruin sitting on a little lick of land on the ocean connected to the mainland by a narrow land-bridge. It’s moss-covered and dark and wet and you can hear the wind and ocean and there are hardly any signs / ropes preventing you from exploring it. The atmosphere there is one of those you can’t capture in picture or words, but it’s the type of ruined castle I’d only dreamed about existing before. It’s a place that tugs at your imagination as if it demands you to find a story here. I’d love to be able take my laptop there and find a quiet corner and write.

Eshaness Cliffs

EshaNessFog

EshaNessClear

My second favorite after Dunnotar Castles. Huge, foggy cliffs sitting in the Shetland Islands with hardly a sign of human habitation. The drop here is as intimidating as I’ve ever seen, as much for the length as the cold, angry ocean crashing below. We wandered around for an hour or so, walking up and down. The walk up was so foggy we could scarcely see a hundred feet in front of us, but by the time we went back it had cleared up and we were treated with a view of the entire shore-line. Absolutely unforgettable.

St. Mary’s Church

StMarys

This was a cool surprise. We spent two days being led around by Hugh, our properly Scottish tourguide who was witty, knowledgable, and brilliant in pretty much every way possible. He took us to a tiny little town with about four houses and up a one way road to an old church. From the outside it was about the most boring looking building imaginable, a plain white rectangle. But then you step inside and look up and are greeted by this extraordinary painted ceiling that seems to come out of nowhere. It’s amazing that places like this still exist.

Again, I apologize for the lack ofupdates to my blog this year. I’m hoping to at least get back to twice a month starting next year. For those who still read, thank you, and I gift to you yet another amazing Pentatonix video  🙂

A Brief History of Stories, Part Six

(This is a continuation. Previous installments here: Part one, Part two, Part three, Part four, Part five)

Well, it’s been a bit longer since my last update than I’d hoped. It’s way too easy to fall out of the habit of doing these, as it turns out.

I thought I’d get back in the swing of things with an update on my novel, The Wildfire Crown. Although my blog-writing has suffered this year, my fiction writing has proceeded along a decent clip. After the plot disaster around Christmas time, I managed to finish the second draft, followed by a third draft around May. It was around the end of the third draft that I actually had the entire plot worked out, something that I sincerely hope I can accomplish the first time around in future novels.

At that point I took a break to write a longish short story / novelette that I submitted to the third quarter of the Writers of the Future competition. I thought the story turned out very well, and look forward to seeing the results toward the end of this month.

Then it was back to the fourth draft, which I’d hoped would be a polishing run but turned out to be more extensive, as I found a number of medium-sized plot flaws I needed to fix. Then it turned out the opening chapters weren’t quite working, so I had to do another revision there. Then…

Then I had a complete novel.

Not a finished novel, mind you. It still needs a great deal of polish, but it’s plot-complete. I sent it off to a handful of beta readers a few weeks ago, and have started getting comments. I’ll do another editing pass myself, and then plan on handing it over to a professional editor later this fall.

The next step is to figure out what I’m going to do with it. I’d expected I would go for an agent and large publishing company, but the last couple months I’ve found myself leaning in the other direction. I’m not sure publishing companies have responded to the e-book revolution as gracefully as I’d like. In particular, I’m not hearing good things about the size of advances and the contract terms newer authors are getting right now. Since I’ve got a great job and don’t need my writing to turn into a career just yet, I feel like I’ve got room to experiment, and my first experiment may be self publishing this novel. I’ll be sure to blog about it, either way, once I’ve made my final decision.

So what’s next? More writing! While editing Wildfire, I’ve also started a new novel, a mystery-infused epic fantasy featuring a Sherlock Holmes / John Watson style duo. It’s a major departure from Wildfire and I’m running into early troubles, but I plan on pushing through it and can’t wait to see where it ends up.

I sincerely hope you don’t have to wait too long for my next blog entry, but in the meantime, may I suggest the always-wonderful Pentatonix to pass the evenings. Here’s one of their newest videos:

Another Guest Post and an Awesome Video

 

I hope everyone’s been enjoying their summer. It’s been a good one for me, though rather busy (and wayyy too hot 😦 ).

My apologies again for the infrequent updates. I’ve got a number of things I want to post about and have yet to find the time.

In the meanwhile, though, I did do another guest post for the Fictorians, this time on one of my favorite movies, The Usual Suspects. Check it out!

http://www.fictorians.com/2013/07/12/the-good-kind-of-twist/

And if that’s not enough, watch this awesome video featuring the fantastic Lindsey Stirling 🙂