Friday, October 31, 2008

Book Report: Slipt, by Alan Dean Foster

This is a competently put together book, but it didn't move me. I don't think it's the fault of the language, which is technically flawless and of a style that tells the story in a brisk but effective manner. I think it's the plot. It proceeds well enough while it covers the main character, Jake, crossing the southern U.S. He's pursued by hired thugs. The severity of the trouble in which Jake finds himself increases with every mile, and even the villains are surprised at the things they are willing to do (which was a nice twist and makes the villains understandable if not quite sympathetic). I thought it fell down at the climax, though. Foster has the ostensible villain of the story killed off by the villain's boss, who makes a few-page appearance before being killed in his turn. It seemed very non-sequitur, although it ensured that Jake would be pushed to do things against his conscience. I would have preferred to see what happened when both Jake and his antagonist had to find their way out of the stalemate which immediately precedes the climax.

All in all, a good and interesting read, but not a great one.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Nanu-Nanu NaNoWriMo

Current Reading: Slipt, by Alan Dean Foster

Inspirational Quote: "That's not writing, that's typing." -- Truman Capote

This demotivator is from Sean Lindsay's wonderful 101 Reasons to Stop Writing Blog.

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is a "contest," in which would-be novel writers try to write 50K words in thirty days. There are no quality or ability requirements, nor is there any prize (writing 50K words in a month is enough of a reward, apparently).

Encouraging people to have fun with words, that's a good thing.

Letting people experience first hand the joy of creating fiction, that's a good thing.

Bringing people together over a love of writing, that's a good thing.

Setting a difficult goal for which people can strive and against which people can measure themselves, that's a good thing.

Really, the only bad thing is the number of people who do this, or try to, and decide, "Hey, this writing thing is easy. I'm going to get this published. I'll get rich!"

Um... no.

  1. It ain't easy. See the lack of "quality or ability requirements" mentioned above. Any idiot can produce prose. To repeat the quote from above, that's not writing, that's typing. Writing 50K words is easy. Writing 50K words that make sense together, that's harder. Writing 50K words that tell a compelling, beautiful story that grips the reader and haunts them and makes them see (or want to see) the world differently, THAT'S bloody-near impossible.

    See, to be good, they have to be the RIGHT 50K words. And, to paraphrase Frost, "that makes all the difference."

  2. It ain't going to get published. Pulp and paper manufacturers all over the world love NaNoWriMo because so many sheets are used to print out those stories (alright... usually it's all done electronically, but go with me on this so I can make a contrasting sentence). Agents and Editors hate it because those pages end up in their in-boxes (there. Done). From what I've read, they have enough examples of careless writing already and do not want any more.

  3. You ain't going to get rich. Stephen King gets rich. Joanne Rowling gets rich. The rest of us get a couple of extra bucks that don't begin to repay us for the months we spend all alone in little rooms trying to find the right 50K words. Usually we blow this on a night out, or our children's education fund.

To sum:

Writing encouragment, good thing.

Delusions of grandeur, bad thing.

Have fun.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Book Report: Sad Cypress, by Agatha Christie

My introduction to Hercule Poirot, I'm ashamed to say, came through television and not through one of Agatha Christie's many mystery books. In 1989, the BBC put together a series of Poirot mysteries starting the wonderful David Suchet, who captured a character who was as endearing as he was eccentric. I doubted that the text versions could be half as entertaining.

As so often is the case, though, the book and the drama are different creatures and should be considered independently.

Unlike Ice Station Zebra, which I found plot heavy and character light, Sad Cypress is as much involved with character as it is with plot. Surprisingly, though, the character in focus is not the nominal hero (Hercule Poirot himself), but the young woman accused of murder. She undergoes an emotional transformation as a result of events in the story. Poirot himself remains unchanged, although his interference is a catalyst for the woman's change. I won't say that it was treated with great emotional depth, which would have been difficult given the British reserve evident in the story and characters, but it was important and it was consistent and it was well done.

I can see why, over thirty years after her death, Agatha Christie is still considered one of the world's greatest mystery writers.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Monday, October 20, 2008

I Can't Think of Anything to Write

(From stolen shamelessly.)

Current Reading: Sad Cypress, by Agatha Christie

Inspirational Quote: "Lower your standards and keep writing." -- William Stafford

On my desk's a bust of Shakespeare
And what's he doing there?
Staring at my work in progress,
And howling his despair.

"You call this claptrap writing?
Where's the poetry, the wit?
Your plot is trite and boring,
Your protagonist's a twit."

"Oh Bill," I cry, "I'm trying,
But the right words just won't come.
My climax's just pitiful,
My antagonist is dumb."

"Oh, fie upon thee," Willy said,
"'Tis well for you to quit."
Then I threw his head in the trash,
'Cause I don't need his sh*t.

(Note: I'm not suffering writer's block. I have, though, and this was funny, so I had to put it up now before I lost it).

What's in a Genre?

Current Reading: Sad Cypress, by Agatha Christie

Inspirational Quote: "The best time to plan a book is while you're doing the dishes." -- Agatha Christie

I've been thinking about genre.

I write the same stories everyone else writes: a character has problem, sets out to solve problem, struggles against antagonistic person or situation, and succeeds or fails. At their core, all stories are like that. Characters change, and problems, possible solutions, antagonists and resolutions; the details change, but the story stays the same.

One of those details is the mold in which the story is cast. What settings and situations surround the story, what expectations the reader ought to bring to their reading, depend on the trappings with which the writer feels most comfortable. I write those stories in a Science Fiction and Fantasy setting because those are the tropes with which I'm most familiar. I enjoy writing with them. They're fun.

But genres can be confusing. How do you label a work when you're really not sure what all those labels mean?

So I found myself thinking about genre and, because this is the way my brain works, the boardgame Clue (according to Wikipedia, it's actually called Cluedo outside of NA. Who knew?). This is the result:

Mystery: Who did it in the Library with a Rope?

Cozy Mystery: Mrs. White takes time out from her obsessive crocheting to figure out who did it in the Library with a Rope.

Thriller: There's a bomb in the house. Colonel Mustard has one hour to figure out who's responsible and where they've put it.

Techno-Thriller: As above, but Colonel Mustard now has access to the full high-tech arsenal of the USAF.

Spy Thriller: replace bomb with microchip schematics of a nuclear weapon, make meek Professor Plum the undercover protagonist and Miss Scarlet a wily assassin working against national interests.

Suspense: Someone's taken out Professor Plum in the Library with a candlestick. Colonel Mustard is next unless he can figure out who's responsible. A knife is missing from the Kitchen, and the Colonel is being led inexorably toward the Lounge.

Science Fiction: Colonel Mustard and his crew of Space Marines must discover who killed Mrs. White, the alien's ambassador on Earth, with a laser blaster in their starship's Library.

Comic Book: Evil Colonel Mustard uses his ability to spontaneously generate rope in order to kill Miss Scarlet, whose psychic powers can't protect her in the shielded Conservatory. To prevent Mustard's ascension to World Ruler, Professor Plum drinks his super-professor serum and becomes the Iron-Clad Avenger.

CyberPunk: Mr. Green is dead, victim of a viral Wrench to the head of his avatar in the on-line Library. Professor Plum, fired from his tenured university position for hacking corporate systems and now reduced to living in the seedy underbelly of a futuristic society, has to figure out who's responsible before he becomes the next victim.

SteamPunk: Professor Plum is killed in his Conservatory with a knife. Miss Scarlet, his assistant, must prevent Colonel Mustard, the half-man, half-clockwork dictator of London, from recovering the professor's research and discovering the secret of the Music of the Spheres.

Fantasy: The half-fey Miss Scarlet dies in the arms of mortal Mr. Green, the victim of an enchanted Candlestick in the Study, Green has to enter the fey realm and obtain water from the magic fountain to restore her before evil Mrs. White takes over the realm.

Epic Fantasy: There is only one way to kill Mrs. White, the witch queen who rules the land, and that is to destroy the enchanted Candlestick that is key to her power. Quiet, comfort-loving Mr. Green, accompanied by his friends Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum, must make their way across the land to Mrs. White's Hall, where they must throw it into the magic fountain where it was created. To get there, they must face the hordes of Orcs and Trolls commanded by Miss Scarlet and Mrs. Peacock.

Urban Fantasy: Nobody in downtown Detroit notices Mr. Green's death by Knife in his Hall except Mrs. White, the local witch. Mr. Green was guarding the seven gateways to the fey realm, and now Miss Scarlet, the elf queen, is free to invade the ghetto.

Horror: Mr. Green killed Colonel Mustard in the Billiard Room with a Revolver, but the good Colonel won't stay dead...

Cthulhu Mythos: Professor Plum's investigation into the murder of Miss Scarlet in the Dining Room uncovers an unholy cult of degenerate, mad New-England cannibals who worship an uncanny idol.

Romance: Miss Scarlet and Mr. Green, separated years ago by circumstances, are brought together by the stabbing death of Mrs. White in the Conservatory.

Period Romance: Miss Scarlet, lady in waiting to Lady White, harbors a forbidden love for Duke Green. When the Duchess is stabbed in the Conservatory by a courtly rival, she finds the mourning Duke finally opening himself to the possibility of love beneath his station.

Erotica: Miss Scarlet does everyone in the Ballroom.

...If there's a genre I missed, let me know.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Book Report: Ice Station Zebra, by Alistair MacLean

A bit of a departure from the usual run of SF/F, this is a cold-war era spy/detective thriller from Britain. The plot is something, with complications and reversals and revelations galore. A typical example of this is the main character's mission, of which he gives four different versions throughout the book. Each version is a little closer to the truth, but only the last of which actually explains what's doing. Set against this is an antagonist whose identity and mission are a mystery to the very end.

The characters are given no depth whatsoever, as is typical in this sort of thing. But the events of the plot come so quickly that there's no time for depth.

The story concerns a British civilian doctor who boards an American nuclear submarine to rescue a scientific detachment trapped on the ice in the high arctic. I'm used to reading North American renditions of British characters and their speech. I wonder if our depictions of them are as skewed as MacLean's depiction of the Americans in his book. Speech mannerisms and idioms are just off base enough that it added to the entertainment.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this, but I didn't love it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Election Night In Canada

Current Reading: Ice Station Zebra, by Alistair MacLean

Inspirational Quote: "Democracy gives every man the right to be his own oppressor." -- James Russell Lowell

Tonight, we Canadians answer a vital question:

Will we allow the governing Conservative party, which has lied to us and made our lives miserable, to continue to do so for another four years, or will we elect some other party to lie to us and make our lives miserable?

As Woody Allen has said, "One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Monday, October 13, 2008

Book Report: Falling Sideways, by Tom Holt

Tom Holt belongs to a group of people I love: British humorous fantasists. Douglas Adams was the first I discovered, and Terry Pratchett is the one I admire most. Tom Holt falls somewhere in the spectrum between the two.

I want to like Falling Sideways. I do. It's got frogs and a beleaguered protagonist and a lot of jokes about Windows 98. And some very clever and unexpected similes, which is half the fun in these books.

However, it all just doesn't work for me. Sorry. The plot is complex and contradictory and although being confused is mildly enjoyable at times, I reached the end of the book and thought, "I don't think the payoff was worth wading through the rest of the story."

Ulysses Rating: 2 - I had some trouble with this.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Lost at Sea, No Map, Won't Ask for Directions...

Current Reading: Falling Sideways, by Tom Holt

Inspirational Quote: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." -- W. Somerset Maugham

I think novel writing is a like an ocean voyage. I know where Ithaka is, I'm just not certain how to get there. And I keep getting sidetracked by sorceresses and monsters.

Okay, obviously not an ordinary ocean voyage. This ship doesn't even have shuffleboard, let alone a fully-stocked bar.

But I digress.

I got a little side tracked a couple of weeks ago. I was making no real progress on the Magnus Somnium. I went back and rewrote passages without making them better. I wrote upcoming scenes. I found other things to do. I was crossing the same patch of ocean without finding a way forward.

I'd almost reached the third act of the book, the one packed with action. All the revelations, surprises and back stories are out of the way and it's a straight downwind run to port. It should have been easy. It wasn't.

So, in a fit of creative dithering, I decided to do something I've never done before. I wrote an outline for the remaining portion of the book. It's not much. It takes up about half a page. It's just a breakdown of the important actions that have to happen in each chapter to lead up to the resolution: X does this, Y does that, and Z gets in the way.

It's had a remarkable effect, though. I won't say that my writing has improved because I think it lacks depth and resonance. However, I'm making considerable progress now that I've got a decent set of charts. I'm willing to sacrifice a little depth because this is only a second draft, and there will be opportunity to resonate in the third.

I've never been one for outlines. I've always felt I knew well enough where things were going that I didn't need to put it down. However, the very act of writing down the outline has clarified my direction and sharpened my focus. The end doesn't seem as far away or unobtainable as it did a few short weeks ago.


I may be an outline convert. I'll have to see how things go.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Book Report: Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

I'm quite fond of Connie Willis's work. From the quirky romance of Bellwether to the quirky tragedy of Passage, she manages to take the ordinary and make it both funny and extraordinary. So I was a little surprised that I had some trouble reading The Doomsday Book, especially considering that it won the Hugo and the Nebula. I had difficulty right from the start, and I still don't understand why. The setup is fast, and the inciting action occurs quite early. The characters are well-drawn and interesting. It's a mystery, and I admit it may have more to do with me than with Ms. Willis's work.

I understand my difficulty getting through the middle section much better. Once the main character, a time-travelling historian, arrives in the middle ages the pace of the story drops considerably. A lot of time is spent developing the characters of those around her, and giving the reader tremendous detail about the setting time, place and society. However, not much happens to move the story forward. It is only near the end of the second book that Willis reveals the danger the protagonist is in, and from there the pace picks up considerably, with tragic results.

Don't get me wrong. Willis is great. I doubt I'll ever read this book again, but I know I'll pick up Willis soon. My wife has To Say Nothing of the Dog on the bookshelf.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.