Friday, March 29, 2013

God Save the Queen by Kate Locke

Kate Locke's God Save the Queen has been pinging my radar for a good while now, but I'd stayed away from it for a very specific reason. I just don't really enjoy steampunk. Not that Locke's novel is actually steampunk, but the cover put me to thinking it might be. But I just kept running into the bloody novel every time I turned around, and decided that the universe was trying to tell me something. So I broke down and bought it. The lesson it seems is one of the ones I learned in elementary school; Never judge a book by its cover. Locke delivers page turner full of memorable characters, action, humor and a unique atmosphere that practically drips off the page. God Save the Queen may not fit comfortably in any of the common classifications of genre, but its definitely earns the label of 'unabashedly good'.

The blurb from the publisher:

Queen Victoria rules with an immortal fist. 

The undead matriarch of a Britain where the Aristocracy is made up of werewolves and vampires, where goblins live underground and mothers know better than to let their children out after dark. A world where being nobility means being infected with the Plague (side-effects include undeath), Hysteria is the popular affliction of the day, and leeches are considered a delicacy. And a world where technology lives side by side with magic. The year is 2012 and Pax Britannia still reigns.

Xandra Vardan is a member of the elite Royal Guard, and it is her duty to protect the Aristocracy. But when her sister goes missing, Xandra will set out on a path that undermines everything she believed in and uncover a conspiracy that threatens to topple the empire. And she is the key-the prize in a very dangerous struggle.
The greatest strength of Locke's writing is its atmosphere. From the opening page, she establishes a distinct sense of setting and tone, painting the world of her alternate London in hues both familiar and unsettlingly strange. Despite the strangeness, the vampire and werewolves, the slight alterations to modern technology and the anachronistic feel of a British Empire that refuses to let go of the past, God Save the Queen is chock full of authenticity.

The protagonist, Xandra Vardan, is the most easily identifiable reason for this. The story is told from a close first person point of view, and Xandra's conflicted loyalties between her family and her sense of duty to the Crown give us a unique perspective as her perceptions of the people and world around begin to crumble. She is both well informed and completely in the dark, leaving her to question everything including her own sanity at times. It is this pervasive sense of doubt, that makes Xandra so relatable. She doesn't know truth from lies and her resulting paranoia softens her more pedestrian role as the kick-ass female herione of urban fantasy.  She may be more than formidable in a fight, as Locke shows often and frequent but she doesn't know where to direct her considerable talents in the web of lies and propaganda she finds herself ensnared in.

The secondary characters are likewise well rounded, especially her siblings. All the interactions between Xandra and her brother and sisters feel exactly like the petty family dramas that will be familiar to many readers. Xandra's love interest, Vexation McLaughlin, Alpha of the Wolves of Scotland felt a bit too Gabaldonian to me, but was nonetheless a well nuanced and likable love interest. The relationship that grows between he and Xandra doesn't seem forced and plays rather naturally, excepting the fact that things develop pretty quickly from what appears to be a one-nighter. I think Locke wants us to believe its roots are in the animalistic natures of the characters, so we can suspend a little extra disbelief at which they find themselves in so comfortable a relationship. It niggled me a bit, but the didn't distract me from the plot by being too much. Hopefully, the relationship will hit a rock or two in the sequel because Vex, is a bit too perfect, which seems a bit too much like wish fullfillment for me.

The only character I felt got shorted in the nuance department was the villain. I felt that there were layers to his character that should have been expanded on, or explored more. It probably didn't hurt at all that his identity never felt like a big reveal to me. The plot, while seeming like all good conspiracy theories to center around who the big bad is, was really about the truth about Xandra's importance and how she comes to term with the change in her personal status quo. Which makes Locke's choice to focus almost solely on her heroine the wise one.

While having no real experience with real world London, I enjoyed the heavy British flavor, though I've heard complaints that it was a bit over the top. But I felt it added a sense of identity to the novel that set it apart from most of the urban fantasy I've read. I would defend Locke's choices by saying, that while
the dialect and slang used may not be representative of the real London of 2012, that the London of God Save the Queen, is most certainly not intended to be representative of the real world at all. If we can suspend our disbelief enough for a vampire queen that has ruled England for almost two hundred years, why can't we accept the fact that the dialect of this ficticious version of London hasn't evolved along the same lines as our own. I found it a bit tongue in cheek, and it fit the tone that Locke was trying to establish.

My only real consistant complaint was that there were a few things that felt repetitive in the narrative. I quickly grew weary of the number of the times we were told how much Xandra and one of her many relations look alike. There were some other particular bits of prose that were repetititve but that one was the only one I found truly distracting.

The action sequences were well written, and fit with personality of Xandra very well. There was very little in the way of tactical though, or complex martial choreography. It was full of bashing, jobbing, and good old fashioned scrapping. It didn't take itself too seriously, and was a well played through out. It's nice to have fight scenes that I find no need to deconstruct or evaluate for realism in the least, that are as natural and unpredictable as a tavern brawl.

As the beginning of the Immortal Empire series, God Save the Queen sets the bar pretty high, while laying out many compelling conflicts, characters, and just enough mystery and uncertainty to keep readers thirsty for another hit off the vein, but Locke wisely tells a tight and complete story all the same. It may not be 'steampunk' afterall, and I'm glad I gave Xandra and Kate Locke the chance to earn my continued patronage. Bloody well done, indeed.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Spec Fic Writer's 101: Pacing with Courtney Schafer

Pacing is perhaps the most ephermeral off all of the balls a writer has to juggle, but it also one of the most critical elements of compelling storytelling. The effect good pacing has on the flow of a novel can make or break the reception a author recieves in the marketplace. So when, Courtney Schafer, an up and comer in genre circles agreed to take on this difficult subject, I was anxious to see what words of wisdom she would have for would-be authors. I was really impressed by her debut novel The Whitefire Crossing which showed an impressive understanding of the craft of writing, and daring willingness to break with conventional structure. Her take on pacing is no less impressive. I found her advice to be both well informed, by her own experience and useful for writers of all levels of experience. I hope the readers of this series will glean as much useful information in her words as I did.

Pacing: The Art of Keeping Your Readers Riveted to the Page

Ah, pacing: the area most often singled out by book reviewers as problematic in debut novels.  Why?  Probably because pacing is one of the hardest things for a writer to evaluate objectively in their own work, especially at the higher, structural level.  But before we talk structure, let’s talk about the simplest aspect of pacing: the speed of the story, as experienced by the reader.

Descriptive and expository passages slow a scene’s pace down.  Pure dialogue and action speed it up.  You can also use sentence length to change a reader’s perception of pace: long sentences feel slower, short sentences feel faster.  For example, look at two snippets from my own writing.  First this one:

I sat cross-legged on a flat topped chunk of talus and soaked in the view.  Below me sprawled the broad rock strewn basin at the head of the canyon.  Dawn’s light painted the surrounding peaks a vivid gold and softened the contours of the icy snowfields that spilled from their heights.

Compared to this one:

I turned, listening in darkness. Where was he, where –
An impact slammed me against unyielding stone. Pain flared in my ribs.  I twisted and lashed out with the knife. The blade hissed through empty air.
 I spat a curse.  The only reply was a low, mocking laugh.

Second one reads faster, right?  That’s due to a combination of action and shorter sentences.  Another way to increase pace is to use run-on stream-of-consciousness sentences to convey a sense of breathless immediacy.  But that’s a technique best used in moderation, and preferably in alternation with far shorter sentences.  Here’s an example from a car chase scene in Adam Hall’s espionage thriller The Tango Briefing:

His headlights seemed rather bright even allowing for the fact that I was now facing them and I started wondering again whether I’d judged things right but there was a rising fifty on the clock by now and everything was shaping up well enough; I think it was only the primitive animal brain starting to worry: the organism didn’t like the look of this at all, up on its back legs and bloody well whining.
Speed now 70.
His estimated speed: 80 plus.
Minimum impact figure if things went wrong: 150.
I didn’t put the heads on yet because I wanted to save that till later: three or four seconds from now. At the moment he wouldn’t be absolutely sure what I was doing: he would have lost my rear lamps but that could mean I’d simply turned them off; he would have picked up my parking lights but he wouldn’t necessarily identify them: with an eye-level horizon the big North African stars seemed to be floating on the dunes and this would confuse him.

As Hall’s spy protagonist and a rival operative play a high-speed game of chicken that ends in a deadly crash, Hall continues to alternate between Quiller’s thoughts and spare, brutal statements of fact.  The technique is startlingly effective to maintain intensity – but it works because it fits perfectly with the book’s overall style.

 You’ll need to experiment and find out what techniques work best with your own style.  Another important thing to keep in mind is the “right” pace will vary between scenes.  Got a thrilling action scene?  Keep the pace quick.  But for a character moment, you might want to slow down to let your readers savor the emotional nuances.

You want to add in enough description to keep the reader grounded in your world without losing their interest, and enough of an internal view into a character to make them feel real and compelling without drowning the reader in angst or irrelevancies.  How do you walk that line?  It’s an art, not a science, and the really tricky part is that the answer’s different for every story.  A sword-and-sorcery tale requires a much faster pace than literary dystopian SF.  Thankfully, there are two excellent ways to judge the success of low-level pacing, and they work no matter what type of story you’re writing.

The first and easiest way: read your story aloud.  (Better yet if you can have someone else read it aloud while you listen, but that requires an extremely patient friend or spouse.)  Are there spots where your attention starts to wander?  That’s a big red warning flag that you need to increase pace and tension.  (I’ll talk more about tension in a moment, when discussing pace at the structural level.)  Conversely, is the action happening so fast that it’s confusing?  If something important just took place, does the scene convey the appropriate emotional impact to the characters, or does it rush on to something else before the reader has time to process the change?  If so, you need to slow the pace down, by adding internal dialogue, descriptive tags, or other indications of character reactions. 

But even reading aloud, it’s not always easy to see pacing issues in your own writing, because you know your world and characters so well that you see beyond what’s actually on the page.  That brings me to the second and best way to evaluate pacing: get blunt, honest feedback from readers experienced in your genre.  When I say “experienced in your genre,” I don’t mean the feedback-giver should be some professor of creative writing.  The person doesn’t have to be a writer at all.  But you want someone who both enjoys your genre and is well-read in it.  That means they’ll have an intuitive grasp of the range of pacing appropriate to the type of story you want to tell.  And even someone who’s never written a word of their own can tell you where their interest flags, or when a scene is confusing or rushed. 

Speaking of that experienced reader, I want to point out that reading widely in your genre may be the best thing you can do for yourself as a writer.  The more you read, the more you internalize what works and doesn’t work in stories – especially if you not only read, but think about the books you read.  What was it about that favorite novel that kept you glued to your chair until the wee hours of the morning?  Or what about that book whose premise sounded so intriguing, but turned out to be an utter bore?  Why did your interest fade away?

But okay, let’s move up a level now, and talk about overall story structure.  You may hear people talking about how these days debut authors need to open their novels with a “bang” to get the reader hooked.  (Established authors enjoy a little more leeway, because readers already trust in their story-telling skills.) Sometimes people misunderstand this to mean they need to start in the middle of some frenetic action scene.  But if the readers aren’t yet invested in the characters or story, it’s far more likely they’ll find the action confusing and/or boring.  I think a more useful suggestion is to try and put your story’s inciting incident as close to the start of the book as possible. What do I mean by inciting incident?  The event that sets your primary plot in motion.  To use a familiar example, in Harry Potter it’d be the invitation for him to attend Hogwarts.

Once you’ve got the hook set and the plot in motion, you can relax into a bit of a slower pace to flesh out characters and fill in your world.  But even here, you don’t want to lose narrative tension entirely.  So what is narrative tension?  It’s the suspense that keeps a reader turning the pages, wondering what will happen next.  Lose tension, and you risk losing the reader.

A lack of tension can be awfully hard for a new writer to spot.  I know it was for me.  When I first queried my original draft of The Whitefire Crossing, I got all these extremely complimentary rejections from agents praising everything from my prose to my worldbuilding...only to finish with the dreaded, “But I just didn’t fall in love with it.”  It wasn’t until I joined a critique group and got chapter-by-chapter feedback on the draft that I learned what the underlying problem was: the story lacked tension.  I wrote a post a few weeks ago at the Night Bazaar in which I go into detail on this point, complete with an example scene from my first draft of Whitefire, compared with the same scene in the final draft.  I won’t repeat the entire post here (this one’s gonna be long enough already!), but if like me you learn by example, you might find the comparison illuminating:

Basically, you need to look carefully at each and every scene: is the scene pulling its weight, story-wise?  Are you always furthering the plot, deepening the characters, adding new sources of tension – or better yet, doing several of those things at once?  If not, you need to either cut or rewrite it.  And the more tension you have in the story, the faster-paced it’ll feel to the reader, because they’ll be driven to keep turning pages. 

You also need to look at the flow of tension.  You’ll have natural peaks and valleys, as characters set goals, try to achieve them, encounter setbacks or reversals, and adjust goals/plans accordingly.  But in a well-paced book, those peaks and valleys will be imposed upon an overall rising slope – the tension should increase as the book goes on, rising higher and higher until you reach the book’s climax.  A simple way to do this is by increasing the stakes (either emotional or physical) for the characters involved, each time there’s a major point of conflict.  Think of the classic epic fantasy, in which first a character’s village is destroyed by the baddies, then they realize a war’s coming to their country, then they find that the villain’s ultimate goal is the subjugation/destruction of the entire world.  Or the urban fantasy in which a detective’s hunting a monster that first threatens strangers, then the detective herself, then kidnaps the detective’s lover/child/partner (thus upping the emotional stakes).  Those are simplistic examples, perhaps, but hopefully you get the idea. 

All this is a lot to think about, right?  The good news is that you don’t need to worry much over any of it while writing your first draft.  Pacing is often best addressed in revision, when you can consider each scene in the context of the story as a whole.  So first, get that story out of your head and onto the page. Then you can cut out the dross and adjust the pacing to ensure your reader stays riveted until the very last page. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

I've been reading Peter V. Brett since not long after his debut novel, The Warded Man, hit the shelves. I've enjoyed his novels and following his career, and recommend the novels often. I've participated in and even managed to be a winner in a contest he ran. But while I really liked both The Warded Man and its follow up, The Desert Spear, I've never been overly comfortable with the way many reviewers instantly put him in the league of the heavy hitters of the genre. I felt that there were a few missteps in The Desert Spear and I could never shake the feeling that I hadn't seen the full depth of Brett's writing. While The Demon Cycle was full of fantastic things that touched the quivering heart of my high school D&D geek, there was something missing. Well friends and neighbors, whatever it was, The Daylight War has it. Brett's writing has leveled up with his newest outing and all of that big league praise he's been receiving since the start has finally found comfortable shoulders to rest upon.

Here's the blurb from the publisher:

On the night of the new moon, the demons rise in force, seeking the deaths of two men both of whom have the potential to become the fabled Deliverer, the man prophesied to reunite the scattered remnants of humanity in a final push to destroy the demon corelings once and for all.

Arlen Bales was once an ordinary man, but now he has become something more—the Warded Man, tattooed with eldritch wards so powerful they make him a match for any demon. Arlen denies he is the Deliverer at every turn, but the more he tries to be one with the common folk, the more fervently they believe. Many would follow him, but Arlen’s path threatens to lead him to a dark place he alone can travel to, and from which there may be no returning.

The only one with hope of keeping Arlen in the world of men, or joining him in his descent into the world of demons, is Renna Tanner, a fierce young woman in danger of losing herself to the power of demon magic.

Ahmann Jardir has forged the warlike desert tribes of Krasia into a demon-killing army and proclaimed himself Shar’Dama Ka, the Deliverer. He carries ancient weapons—a spear and a crown—that give credence to his claim, and already vast swaths of the green lands bow to his control.

But Jardir did not come to power on his own. His rise was engineered by his First Wife, Inevera, a cunning and powerful priestess whose formidable demon bone magic gives her the ability to glimpse the future. Inevera’s motives and past are shrouded in mystery, and even Jardir does not entirely trust her.

Once Arlen and Jardir were as close as brothers. Now they are the bitterest of rivals. As humanity’s enemies rise, the only two men capable of defeating them are divided against each other by the most deadly demons of all—those lurking in the human heart.
As in the last volume, Brett chooses to flesh out a secondary character from the last novel by delving into their back story. This time around we're treated to an unflinching look into the early days of Jardir's wife, the manipulative puppet mistress, Inevera. But Brett takes a different tack with The Daylight War. Jardir's history was so massive that it took away from my enjoyment of The Desert Spear, if only because it kept me away from the cast of characters I'd grown attached to, choosing to focus almost exclusively on a character I knew far too little about. Brett wisely doesn't make the same mistake twice, choosing to spread out the back story with events in the present, allowing readers to keep up with all of their favorite characters while learning more about Inevera. And she is worthy of hundreds of pages in a way that I never felt her husband was.

With Inevera's story spanning almost her entire lifespan the 'main' plot line seems sparse in comparison, at least in the amount of time elapsed. Some readers may even feel that this middle volume of the series suffers from the same sort of drag in the plot that plagued several of the more maligned volumes of Wheel of Time series. I strongly disagree with such notions. Even though much of the page count of the book takes place in the past, it's all important to the tale Brett is spinning. Even if the forward movement of the many pieces Brett has assembled on the board is limited in this middle volume, I never felt like the story dragged along in the least. The muddle in the middle was deftly dodged here.

Even revisiting key events from the previous novels for sometimes the third time didn't slow the pace for me. Understanding the character of Inevera and the changing face of the Krasian culture had a profound effect on my enjoyment of the series. Seeing events I'd already read about from a new perspective adds a layer of understanding and depth to them that one could hardly achieve in the more traditional way.

Much like he showed with his treatment of Jardir's rise to power, Brett quickly proves that even a seeming villain is the hero or heroine of their own story. Inevera is far from a one dimensional power behind the throne that one might be tempted to dismiss her as. Her resourcefulness in her struggles to shepherd the rise of the Deliverer are compelling and give her just as much depth as any of the great manipulators in fantasy fiction. She'd make short work of even the most Machiavellian of schemers. And beyond her formidable magic and cunning political maneuvering, we are shown the strength of her love for family and country and her willingness to go against the antiquated traditions that have held her people in a state of stagnation and weakened them against the war against the demons. The more Brett shows of Inevera, the more the reader is drawn in. She may not be likeable, or even sympathetic, but her motives are understandable and often laudable, no matter what you might think of her methods.

I think the real strength of The Daylight War is the way that Brett handles his female characters. They are competent, engaging, and just a full of flaws as their male counterparts. They aren't window dressing and are relevant to the main plot, not just as romantic interests or foils of the men. Some may take umbrage with the way sex is often used as a weapon by many of the characters, but there is a ring of truth to that depiction that is unmistakable. Almost without exception, the women that populate The Demon Cycle are so far from flat and stereotypical that they often steal the show from the macho types around them. And Brett never bothers to try to avoid criticism about what constitutes a strong female character. He just writes them like he would any other character and in doing so infuses the entirety of  the story with an consistent authenticity that makes the cast spring to life in every single scene.

We see more growth from all of the principle cast as well as most of the significant secondary ones. The only character who seems to suffer from not enough attention is Jardir, and I think that is more due to the fact that his story is so closely tied to Inevera's and she is the breakout star of this volume. Rojer and Leesha continue to shine, while Arlen and Renna's romance develops at a clip. Many readers may not be fond of this pairing and of others in the series, but I think Brett does a fantastic job of selling them all. Even relationships that seem like poor pairings at the onset develop naturally with all of the hiccups and speed bumps of the real world. Leesha's predicament is particularly thorny and Brett's treatment of it touches on many hot button issues for modern readers with a level of blunt frankness that is far from comfortable. Love is a messy business, and Brett is never shy with the mess.

The action is as always frenetic and full of the kind of cinematic moments Brett always delivers in spades. His understanding of a clean fight sequence and inventive use of the world's magic system are on full display here. The stakes are more dire and the characters have come into their varying abilities with a level of competency and power that makes me wonder how much more powerful they can become before they simply are too capable for the threat of the demons to even seem real. But I have faith. Brett hints at far more powerful adversaries to come. With two more volumes before the series' projected end, I shudder to think of the Cthulhu level of demon that must await these almost superhuman heroes.

And the finale, what can I say about it without ruining Brett's maddening surprise? Needless to say that fans of the series will be foaming at the mouth for the tentatively titled, The Skull Throne, after reading the conclusion of the inevitable conflict between the Warded Man and Jardir. Brett has turned in a tale that fires on all cylinders, eclipsing his already stellar accomplishments. Even though it is only March, I feel certain that The Daylight War will top many a genre reader's 'best of' lists when the year finally comes to a close.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Spec. Fic. Writer's 101: Prose with Myke Cole

Following the growing career of Myke Cole has been one of my favorite parts of being a reviewer. His debut novel, the frenetically paced and thought provoking, Control Point was one of the first novels I read in 2012. I was fortunate enough to get an EARC of the sequel, Fortress Frontier and I can honestly say that Myke managed to raise the bar for himself in every way. I'm anxious for the upcoming Breach Zone, and look forward to watching Myke's career continue its rise to the peaks of the genre. I considered it a coup, when Myke agreed to be a part of this series. Little did I know that his installment would provide me with some of the best writing advice I've gotten to date. I hope you find it as useful as I did. 

Prose is defined as, “The ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse.” What that really means is, “Anything in the book that isn’t poetry or verse.” But when I’m sitting in the lobby of the World Fantasy Con hotel chewing the fat about an author’s “prose style,” I’m usually thinking of all the words that aren’t dialogue.

Dialogue, by definition, is prose and I admit to butchering the definition beyond all recognition, but this is my guest post, so lock it up.

So, ahem. Here’s my point: When you take the dialogue (and poetry and verse) out of a novel, you’re still left with a lot of words. Prose (as I define it) is really, really important. You don’t want to get it wrong. You don’t want your prose to drag, or to be unclear, or to be so sparse that the reader misses key details and loses track of the story. You don’t want to ramble, and you don’t want to short your audience. Neither purple nor beige, folks. This porridge must be just right.

Well, good news: There are a few well-known, clear and easy to follow rules on how to write effective prose in fantasy and science-fiction. If you stick to them, you are guaranteed to write prose that sings and leaves your reader begging for more.

HAHAHAHAHA! *gasp* Hahahahah! *sniff* Ha . . . heh . . . Sorry. Couldn’t breath for a sec there. Man, that’s funny.

So, yeah. There are no rules. What makes prose effective is completely subjective, and different writers pull it off in different ways. It’s a huge topic, and it’s easier to tackle when you boil it down to opposing extremes. I started this with a false definition, and now I’ll extend it with a false dichotomy. George R.R. Martin set up the Gardener vs. Architect opposition in novel planning, and I’ll take a page from his book and set up my own: Stylist vs. Economist.

Stylists: China Mieville and J.R.R. Tolkien

For Stylists, the prose is, in and of itself, part of the appeal of the novel. While prose is not poetry, the prose has a lot of the same appeal. It is sonorous, lyrical, evocative. The words serve to carry the plot and characters, but they do so in a way that is beautiful and elegiac in its own right. Stylists bring as much pleasure to the reader from the quality of the prose as they do from the story itself.

The best example I can think of here is China Mieville, author of several novels, including one of my favorite fantasies of all time: The Scar. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s a quote from Mieville’s Perdido Street Station:

“Its substance was known to me. The crawling infinity of colours, the chaos of textures that went into each strand of that eternally complex tapestry…each one resonated under the step of the dancing mad god, vibrating and sending little echoes of bravery, or hunger, or architecture, or argument, or cabbage or murder or concrete across the aether. The weft of starlings’ motivations connected to the thick, sticky strand of a young thief’s laugh. The fibres stretched taut and glued themselves solidly to a third line, its silk made from the angles of seven flying buttresses to a cathedral roof. The plait disappeared into the enormity of possible spaces.”

I can read that passage over and over again. Even without knowing anything else about the book, the word choice, cadence and arrangement are so transporting that the prose itself carries me along.  

When done wrong, Stylists distract from the narrative, pull their readers out of the story and annoy them. I’ve heard many readers complain that Tolkien takes paragraphs to describe the side of a hill or the surface of a leaf, when all they want to know is what’s happening next. But done right, as I believe Mieville does, Stylists add a layer of drama and resonance to their story that makes for a more effective reading experience.

Economists: Peter V. Brett and . . . well . . . me

Peter V. Brett has a great expression: “All mules must haul wood.” Your mules are your words, and every single one of them needs to be working to either advance the plot or develop characters, ruthlessly pushing the narrative forward. The Economist viciously prunes their prose, weighing and judging every word, working hard to ensure there is no trace of excess that could potentially slow the story. The goal is a tight, fast-paced tale that aims to catch readers up and hold them. Economists seek to write “page-turners” that will keep you up long past bedtime on school nights.

Look at this tight description of a landscape from Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man:

“He walked for hours more, eventually leaving the trees behind and entering grassland: wide, lush fields untouched by plow or grazing. He crested a hilltop, breathing deeply of the fresh, untainted air. There was a large boulder jutting out of the ground, and Arlen scrambled atop it, looking out at a wide world that had always been beyond his reach.”

No extra details. The description builds the world (undeveloped by mankind, forest giving over to grassland) and furthers the character (breaking free into a wider world he longed to see).  Short. Tight.

For the Economist the story, and not the delivery mechanism (the tenor of the words), are what’s important, and they go to great lengths to ensure that nothing gets in its way. Economists may leave out description when they feel it’s not necessary. I don’t spend a lot of time describing camouflage patterns, or a gun, or the color of lightning. I know that the vast majority of my readers already know what these things look like. If I just say that they exist in the story, I can leave it up to the reader to fill in the descriptive details, saving valuable space and time and making the story move faster.

There’s no judgment here in this admittedly false dichotomy. I am a huge Peter V. Brett and China Mieville fan. The experience I take away from their respective work is profoundly different. I go to Mieville for haunting, resonant experiences. The story is still fantastic, but I enjoy the delivery every bit as much as the plot and characters. I go to Brett for a pulse-pounding narrative that gets right to the point and stays there, page after page, until I’ve finished the book in a stretch of sleepless hours.

The important thing is to find a prose style that works for you, somewhere on the contiuum that exists between these two poles I’ve framed for the sake of argument. Once you have, you’ll have found your “voice,” as writers call it: the rhythm of words on the page that is distinctly you. Once you’ve honed that voice, your readers will recognize it, associate it with your name, and if you keep developing your craft, it will bring them back to your books again and again.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Spec. Fic Writer's 101: Characters with Stina Leicht

My interview with Stina Leicht has been one of the top posts in the history of this blog, and one of the highlights of my experience as a reviewer. So when I decided to put together this series of guest posts, Stina was one of the first people I queried. Not only did she graciously agree to put together her thoughts on creating compelling character, she also championed the idea to her fellow writers at Night Shade Books, gathering the talents of Teresa Frohock and Courtney Schafer. I found her insights into character to be very informative and helpful in my own writing and hope you all feel the same. Not to mention, she's just so damn fun to run. Enough of my prattling, page down and enjoy.

Where Do Characters Come From? by Stina Leicht

Whenever someone asks me that question I'm tempted to tell stories of cabbage leaves and storks. But I won't. Characters and plot both come from the writer's sub-conscience. Writing is like daydreaming that way. Also, like daydreaming, there's no ONE WAY to do it--no rules. Keep in mind that there's only what works for the writer. Myself? Creating characters is one of my favorite things about writing. I enjoy watching them develop and flesh over time. My characters always start out as strangers, but we end as close friends. I usually start with at least one characteristic that is all their own. That characteristic might come from multiple sources. It might be something I noticed about myself or someone else. When I give them characteristics from people I've met I almost never do so in a way they might recognize. (Unless I tell them first. It's too easy to get in trouble.) My characters are always patchwork quilt of my own characteristics and other people's. By the way, I've never created a character based on a real person I disliked and then out of revenge killed them. That's… just not something I'd do. It feels unethical to me.

Anyway, I think it's important to like your characters--even the Black Hats. If the writer cares deeply about their characters, the readers will care. Also, a basic knowledge of psychology helps because it's important to understand people. What motivates a person to behave as they do? What failings do they have? (No one is perfect. And if they're perfect, they're not likely to be very realistic or terribly interesting.) What are their fears? Who do they love? What is important to them? What do they hate? What do they like to eat? Do they have any personality disorders? Beliefs? Oh, and whether or not your character's vision of how the universe works is correct or not isn't what really matters. (Sometimes it's more interesting if their belief is wrong.) Belief move us. We all see ourselves as the hero of the story -- even the evil people.

If you're stuck for ideas, there are fun ways to work through it. You can use character worksheets like the one found in Writing a Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. Or you can use character sheets from role playing games. I've heard of people using tarot decks, paintings, and photographs as inspiration for creating characters. I use photos and songs. It doesn't matter what you use as long as it works for you.

Three things to keep in mind regarding the creation of a realistic and interesting character:

1) Strong characters tend to be sympathetic in some way.
In my first writing group, they used to call this "petting the dog." That is, the POV character needed to demonstrate to the reader that they are worth their attention. POV characters need to be likeable in some way. There are a lot of options. The writer can use humor (self-deprecating or otherwise) or by helping someone or displaying a positive quality (courage for example) or by doing something with which the reader can relate. Understand, the POV character needs to do this as soon as possible. (I prefer to do it on the first page.) It also needs to feel natural for the character. If you force it, the reader will see right through it.

2) Strong characters have flaws.
What makes the Daniel Craig James Bond so intriguing? It's his humanity. His vulnerability. Mind you, he keeps it hidden, but it's there just beneath the surface, and we know it. We cheer for him because in spite of his weaknesses, he's strong enough to go on. Flaws give characters something internal to struggle against. Flaws add dimension. Think about it. It's our faults that make us human--not our perfection. Perfection seems too robotic or like author wish-fulfillment. Also, mistakes are important. Mistakes are how people learn and grow. We all learn by trial and error. Characters should too. Let them make mistakes--just make sure they're smart mistakes and don't repeat the same ones over and over. That gets old fast.

3) Strong characters have a touch of mystery.
They don't instantly reveal everything about themselves--everything about their past or even their present. Let's face it, no one knows all there is to know about themselves. Sometimes we get it wrong. People change. The element of surprise in a character is pretty wonderful stuff. Used correctly, it can make a beloved character even more interesting. It's best to leave the reader with a few questions about the characters--nothing major to the plot, mind you. Just trust the reader to fill in some of the blanks for themselves. It's the blanks that we fill in for ourselves as readers that make reading an interactive experience.

Characters really are my favorite aspect of writing.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Review of the Week: Scourge of the Betrayer by Jeff Salyards

Jeff Salyards' debut novel Scourge of the Betrayer has drawn a lot of comparison to Glen Cook's Black Company novels. His brooding and unflinching tale of a feared group of mercenaries is reminiscent of genre standouts such as Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence. In less than half the size of most fantasy novels, Salyards delivers a story that is packed with bloody action, political intrigue, gallows humor, and truly compelling characters while showing only the tip of the iceberg in the opening volume of the series. Readers who enjoy their heroes dark and the stakes dire should definitely add Salyards to their must read list.

Here's the blurb from book jacket: 

Many tales are told of the Syldoon Empire and its fearsome soldiers, who are known throughout the world for their treachery and atrocities. Some say that the Syldoon eat virgins and babies-or perhaps their own mothers. Arkamondos, a bookish young scribe, suspects that the Syldoon's dire reputation may have grown in the retelling, but he's about to find out for himself. Hired to chronicle the exploits of a band of rugged Syldoon warriors, Arki finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the men's enigmatic leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin. A secretive, mercurial figure haunted by the memories of those he's killed with his deadly flail, Braylar has already disposed of at least one impertinent scribe . . . and Arki might be next. Archiving the mundane doings of millers and merchants was tedious, but at least it was safe. As Arki heads off on a mysterious mission into parts unknown, in the company of the coarse, bloody-minded Syldoon, he is promised a chance to finally record an historic adventure well worth the telling, but first he must survive the experience! A gripping military fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook, Scourge of the Betrayer explores the brutal politics of Empire-and the searing impact of violence and dark magic on a man's soul.
Salyards sets himself apart from the very beginning. His protagonist, the scribe, Arkamandos, while similar to the protagonist of Cook's Black Company novels, is far too naive and wet behind the ears to rate anything more than the most cursory of comparisons. Arki is a fish out of water, thrust into the company of Syldoon mercenaries whose bloody reputation seems all too well deserved. This choice only serves to spotlight the differences between the Syldoon and the young chronicler, who is far more like most genre readers than the typical viewpoint character.  This similarity, while possibly off-putting for those who like their protagonists larger than life, adds a level of deeper connection to the protagonist that is often lacking in genre novels. Adding depth is the fact that Arki is, for all intents and purposes, an orphan, and it seems that with his joining the Syldoon he may have found a family at last, if only he can survive the experience.

Arki, while naive, is profoundly observant. Through this lens Salyards delivers a complex and compelling account of the small brutalities and abrasive personalities of the Syldoon, while simultaneously capturing the deep bonds of friendship and loyalty between these hard men and women. While the leader of the Syldoon, Braylar Killcoin, gets the most screen time, all of the supporting cast are fleshed out so well that they easily slip the bonds of the page, elbowing and jostling their way into the reader's thoughts long after the novel is finished.

Arki's budding friendship with the outcast Grass Dog Lloi is particularly well handled. As the only woman in the company, the Grass Dog is almost as much of an outsider as Arki himself. She is still a hard woman, but serves as a somewhat softer counter balance to the harsh and critical Killcoin. Also of note are Killcoin's lieutenants, Hewspear and Muldoos. Although they are placed further in the background than Killcoin and Lloi, their bickering and bravado serves to hide the deep sense of loyalty and respect they have for one another and the rest of the company. It is through the smaller moments and often using his supporting cast that Salyards reveals the layered truth of this band of mercenaries. They may be violent, vulgar and brash, but they are good men that can be counted on to stand by their own.

For most readers, Braylar Killcoin will be the star of the novel. The Slydoon Captain is a man of many moods, so mercurial that I was left wondering if he suffers from bi-polar disorder in addition to the haunting effects of his cursed flail, Bloodsounder. Killcoin is at turns cruel and kind, understanding and quick to anger at the smallest slight. Salyards' dialogue shines when Killcoin speaks and the reader never knows which aspect of the Captain's fractured personality will appear. We learn about Killcoin in fits and starts and even by the end of the novel he is far from a solved puzzle. There is a sense that we have only seen a glimpse of the depths of the tortured Captain.

Much the same could be said about Salyards' approach to worldbuilding. The novel seems far more a character study than most books in the genre, and as a result, there is precious little info-dumping in Scourge of the Betrayer. It would almost be fair to say that there is little worldbuilding at all. Salyards' doles out information on the setting sparingly, only hinting at bigger mysteries to be revealed later. I'm definitely looking forward to learning more about Bloodsounder and its curse, the inner workings of the Syldoon, the Godsveil, and more. If Salyards picks up the pace in that department, I think Bloodsounder's Arc will find even more fans.

The pace is quick even in quieter moments, and Salyards manages to pack quite a lot of story into a very small space with the novel clocking in at just over 300 pages. That pace is used to great effect in the battle scenes that permeate the story. With the inept Arki as the sole viewpoint, we get a very different perspective on violence and Salyards wisely shows both Arki's fear and revulsion at the very realistic depictions of the carnage and brutality that are common place in the world of the Syldoon. The prose is equally dark and brooding, easily accenting both the themes of the novel and the characters that populate it.

All in all, Scourge of the Betrayer is a tale of startling violence told through one of the most unique protagonists I've seen in recent memory. Salyards draws a world full of dark atmosphere, complex and richly drawn characters, and more mystery than James Patterson's back catalog, Those searching for something to fill the space between the works of Abercrombie and Lawrence
 should look no further than this excellent start to a promising series.