Epic Terminology

I read another chapter of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings the other day. All right, I get that it’s an epic fantasy with an epic world filled with epic people, lands, animals, and plants. But in the first non-prologue chapter, the reader is slammed with an epic number of unfamiliar phrases and terms. I usually enjoy these kinds of things, but in this case I found myself asking “who or what or where is that?” quite a lot. So much that I started highlighting them:

  • Stormfather
  • shortspears
  • longspears
  • darkeyes
  • lighteyes
  • Shardbearers
  • Brightlord Amaram
  • fearspren
  • slickrock
  • rockbuds
  • highstorm
  • Alethi
  • Gare
  • Veden
  • Stormblessed
  • Shattered Plains
  • Parshendi
  • Highprince Sadeas
  • the murder of King Gavilar
  • skyeels
  • wild axehounds
  • on the ground like cremlings
  • chull rustlers
  • Kusiri, who had run off with the cobbler’s son
  • Hallaw
  • battalionlord
  • the Heralds
  • painspren
  • the Almighty

In my opinion, only a handful of items on that list were explained enough for me to visualize or understand them. All you can do is guess based on the names. Which kind of works for “wild axehounds” but not so much for “chull rustlers.”

I imagine there is a giant glossary in the back of the book, but we Kindle readers are out of luck (because going to the back of the book screws up your reading position). Even if it did work, I don’t really want to have to go to the glossary every three paragraphs.

So, future epic fantasy writers, have pity on your poor readers!

UPDATE: Oh lol, the murder of King Gavilar was in the prologue. There was about a month  between the time I read the prologue and the time I read the first chapter.

Four Is Enough?

I thought I would next tackle The Fires of Heaven, the fifth book in the Wheel of Time series. But I don’t seem to have the same enthusiasm I did with the first four books. After reading the prologue and one chapter of Fires, I’m getting a bad feeling.

The Prologue was a mind-numbingly gigantic info-dump that went on forever. Chapter One follows Min with Siuan, Leane, and Logain. It wasn’t terrible but Min is the only one I care about in that bunch. Then Chapter Two gets us back to Rand, who, I’m sorry to admit, is one of my least favorite character in the books. (Possibly eclipsed only by Mat.) Reading Rand and Mat chapters always feels like a chore.

Jordan’s prose in Fires seems much more verbose than I remember, too. And it was pretty verbose in the first four. Don’t get me wrong, it’s richly detailed and descriptive, and a worldbuilding tour de force, but it’s considerably more detail than is needed to advance a story. So I’m starting to think to myself, maybe the first four books is enough for me.

March Writing Update

At the end of this weekend, I should be around 50,000 words into The Sovereign of Tel. I hope to be finished with a decent first draft by the end of April. I am not completely happy with it right now, but I’m soldiering on anyway in the hope that I can patch it up in a rewrite.

My coolest achievement for the month is this nifty spreadsheet to keep track of my word totals. It does nifty gradients and everything. I set a 7,500 word goal for Monday through Friday, and originally I set a 5,000 word goal for the weekend, thinking I would obviously have more time to write. Well, perhaps counter-intuitively, it turns out, after a week of a day job and writing, I don’t seem to have the energy to write a lot on the weekend. So now I’ve shifted it back down to the regular 3,000 words. (I can’t remember where I read it, so I can’t give credit, but somewhere I read that setting a weekly word count goal might work better than a daily word count goal. So far it’s working for me.)

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I have also planned out my writing schedule for the rest of the year, and hopefully every subsequent year. I will write a novel from January-April, take May off, then write a novel from June through September, then take October off, then do NaNoWriMo in November, and take December off. The idea is to write as many novel drafts as I can.

With this Tel book, I tried to outline everything in the book from beginning to end, so I wouldn’t get to the end and find myself struggling to figure out how to tie everything together like I usually do. Well, it didn’t work. My outline wasn’t detailed enough, and I still don’t know how to tie everything together. So lesson learned: Either a) Spend more time outlining the ending, or b) Just plan on “discovering” the ending no matter what.

I did a more detailed outline because I wanted to find out if I work better as an “outliner” than as a “discovery writer.” Outline writers plan everything out beforehand and work from that. Discovery writers basically make it up as they go, and fix continuity problems in a rewrite. Thus far I’ve been more of a discovery writer, but I wanted to try outlining.

As it turned out, I still deviated from the outline. So I guess even with an outline, I still want to “discover” things. On the other hand, an outline is very useful for giving me at least a framework of what’s going on, and at least a fuzzy idea of where things are going. When you’re staring at a blank page, it’s really helpful to bring up the outline and re-remember what’s supposed to be happening.

So I guess I’m sort of a half-outline, half-discovery writer. It seems like I outline to the point in the story where things need to start getting resolved, and then I start discovering. It’s kind of a frustrating way to work, actually.

Kindle Edition Editors

Can I have a word with you people who take published books and turn them into Kindle books? Let’s talk about the Kindle version of The Stone of Tears by Terry Goodkind.

Seriously, what kind of crack were you people smoking when you gave this project over to a high school intern? The number of typos is astronomical. The intern apparently speed-typed the text without ever looking back at what he’d typed. Possibly on a smart phone with auto correct enabled. Or, more likely, somebody OCRed it but never bothered to look at the results.

There are no paragraph indents. There’s no table of contents, either. Words are missing from sentences. “Than” is usually seen as “that.” And it’s not just here and there, like in the first book, it’s on every page. It’s really a masterpiece of editing sucktasticness. Self-published books are better edited than this thing was. Oh, and get this: The publisher charged $8.54 for it. In other words, FULL PRICE.

This is a clear case of a publisher giving a big old F U to their e-book customers. And they wonder why people think they’re evil. I should seriously get a refund on this steaming pile of typographical chaos.

P.S. I purchased it on 3/14/2012. The Kindle version was missing from Amazon for a while after that. As of this typing on 3/25, it’s back. I can only hope they at least fixed the paragraph indents. If they did, I hope they’re planning to push me the updated version.

P.P.S. The story was pretty good. 🙂 Which makes it all the more infuriating.

My Outline Is Letting Me Down

For my current WIP, I spent what I considered to be a fairly lengthy amount of time writing a cohesive outline of the events that would take place in the novel. I actually did it three times because I had to toss out the first two. So imagine my surprise when I reached somewhere around the 2/3rd mark of the story, consulted the outline for what comes next, and realized, "This outline is incomplete, and all wrong."

I’m at the part where I should be moving toward resolving some things, but I seem to have left the resolutions completely off of the outline. It just sort of says, "Then the good guys win." (Not precisely that, but something similarly vague.)

For example, Lady Elenora just had to flee from an attack on the castle by the Andalorans, and now she’s supposed to pick herself back up and go save the day. Nowhere in my outline does it say how she’s supposed to do that. A rather significant omission which I’ll need to fill in by using the tried-and-true “make it up as I go” method of writing.

Critiquing

I’ve signed up for a couple of online writing critique groups. I’m not ready to submit anything yet, but I thought it would be a good thing to try. It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be! If you think reading 5,000 words from someone else and writing a constructive criticism is easy, think again.

The hardest part is being positive while still being helpful. I’m well aware of how fragile a writer’s ego is, so it feels like walking on egg shells. You want to say, “Wow, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever read!” But, well, it’s usually not. There’s always something that can be improved (I know this from my own writing). But you can’t exactly say, “Wow, this is terrible. Don’t quit your day job.” Because that’s probably what they’re telling themselves.

So you have to find specific things to mention. Not just, “I didn’t like this part.” You have to say, “This part didn’t work for me because I don’t think it’s realistic for a watermelon to fit into a shoe.” Anyway, it gives one a new respect for editors. What a thankless job. 🙂

On The Fifth Sorceress

I half-heartedly read the first five chapters of The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb (2002), knowing it had received generally unfavorable reviews from fans of the epic fantasy genre. (It has an Amazon rating of like 2.25 stars, which is pretty bad for a book from a major publisher.) Five chapters might not sound like much, but the chapters in this book are miles long. Five chapters works out to 149 pages or 25% of the book.

You might think that within 149 pages, some sort of exciting plot would begin, but you would be wrong. It’s all setup and backstory. The hero’s journey is nowhere to be found, so it did not take me long to start skimming. (By skimming, I mean I read the first sentence of every paragraph, or skipped everything but dialog.) There is a lot of exposition at the beginning of this book, and thus very little action.

Unlike Wizard’s First Rule, this book never even came close to growing on me. So what lessons did I learn from examining this book?

In late, out early. You guessed it, some kind of action or movement should begin pretty early in the book, even in the exposition-heavy epic fantasy genre. (I kind of knew this already, actually.) This is called the “in-late, out-early” theory of scene development. It’s not fun to read people sitting around talking (or worse, thinking) about the history of the world and the war that happened three hundred years ago … right at the beginning. It’s like reading the author’s worldbuilding notes. That information should be doled out as needed while the characters are fighting orcs or walking to Mordor.

Keep chapters on the short side. I prefer shorter chapters. Mainly because sometimes I just want to read a little bit, and I don’t like to stop unless I’m at a chapter break. With long chapters, I get annoyed because I have to stop in mid-thought. Also, if the long chapter is mostly exposition, I start thinking something like, “Oh God will this chapter ever end?”

Avoid childishly salacious characters. I’m pretty sure the oversexualized sorceress is a cliche now. Just don’t do it. But if you are going to do it, definitely don’t do five of them, where the only distinguishing feature between them is the color of their hair. And at least pretend they have some subtlety to their amorous ways. Epic fantasies aren’t comic books.

Flaws, flaws, flaws. Again, the best characters have some kind of flaw. Everyone can’t be awesome at everything, or you have to depend completely on your setting and plot. Characters need crippling weaknesses that make them suffer as if they were dragged through the pits of hell … just to make a ham sandwich. (And no, Prince Tristan, bedding half the women in the land instead of picking a wife is not a suitable flaw.)

Stick to first person or third person limited. Newcomb made an odd perspective choice. It’s sort of like third person limited, except we get to hear the thoughts of everyone in the scene. Yet it doesn’t go quite as far as omniscent voice, because the narrator is not an identifiable character. It does not come across well, in my opinion. UPDATE 4/5: I have since learned (from Writing Excuses) that this is an odd form of omniscient viewpoint. It’s still weird.

On Kushiel’s Dart

In my continuing look at other modern fantasy books and authors, I landed on Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey (2002). It consistently ranks high in top ten “best fantasy” lists.

From this book I’ve learned:

  • The “inciting incident” should be early in the book.
  • The characters need to struggle early in the book.
  • A beautiful setting isn’t enough to make a good book without the above.
  • (Also, just now I learned that my WP Theme doesn’t do bullets for crap.)

Allow me to explain. Carey’s prose is beautiful. The world of Terre D’Ange, an alternate history version of Renaissance France, is complex, lavish, and exotic. It reminds me a lot of Dune in its … I don’t know … what’s the word? Grandiosity? Splendor? Otherworldliness?

That being said, I’m stopping after chapter 25, page 242 (of 901 — it’s big) for a number of reasons:

I think I’ve got the “flavor” of the book and the author’s style, which, as I said, is beautiful, and something I could never recreate in a million years of trying.

Kushiel’s Dart is not within the realm of fantasy that I prefer. It’s more of an alternate history fantasy, whereas I’m more fond of the kind of fantasy where impossible stuff can happen. I can like alternate history, but not without a compelling plot and characters (see below).

Politics is a major driving force in Kushiel’s Dart, but it is simply too complex for me to keep track of it all. Adding to that, the names are very difficult to keep straight, as they are all French and they all look the same to my uncultured American eyes. (And, reading on a Kindle, it’s impossible to flip to the glossary — somebody needs to solve that problem.)

But mainly, unfortunately, I can’t discern the plot. I don’t know what anyone’s goals or motivations are. For example: Delauney is a mysterious character with a mysterious past, but since he’s also a major character, it would be nice to have some idea of why he has Phedre and Alcuin gathering information for him. Is it for revenge? Personal gain? A daring bid to become king? It’s anybody’s guess. Phedre (the narrator) doesn’t know, so unfortunately I don’t know either. The book unfolds a lot like an autobiography: Phedre telling her life story. Albeit she tells it in a wonderful voice (you know how you can listen to some people talk all day? They have that certain quality of tone or inflection or charisma that is just pleasant to listen to? That’s what the narrator’s voice in this book is like), but still, there’s a frustrating lack of substance. In the first 242 pages, Phedre herself doesn’t seem to have any motivations except to “love as thou wilt.” I suppose that’s a fine life goal, but it lacks a narrative arc. The book is obviously building toward something but I can’t even guess what it might be. (Okay, well, I can guess it will probably be a confrontation.)

The characters also suffer a bit from a lack of flaws or internal struggles that affect the plot. Everyone seems to be in the place they want to be in their life (except Alcuin, but we only see his story tangentially). Nobody seems to be striving to overcome any obstacles — certainly not Phedre, the narrator. She is thusfar just a passive observer of a bunch of inexplicable political machinations by Delauney. It’s as if the “inciting incident” of the hero’s journey hasn’t happened yet and all we’re seeing is backstory. I suppose it has to happen later in the book, but surely it should be somewhere within the first 242 pages? (With my luck, I’m probably stopping right before it happens.)

P.S. Okay let’s just put this out there. If you’re squeamish about sex, you might want to avoid this book. It’s basically a first-person autobiography of a courtesan in Terre D’Ange, a world where instead of the repressive Catholic Church, a polar opposite Church of Elua develops, which teaches us to “love as thou wilt.” Sex is not only celebrated, it’s part of the religion. The narrator is a courtesan with a special gift for, well, enjoying pain. Yeah, like from whips and stuff. It’s explicit, but I didn’t think it was graphic or gratuitous, if that makes any sense. (At least in the first 242 pages — there was plenty of book left to ramp it up.)

Wizard’s First Rule, Part Two

Well, I don’t know how Goodkind did it (which makes it a good topic for study, I guess), but somehow Wizard’s First Rule crawled up under my skin and embedded itself there. It kept getting better and better and in the end, I am shocked to say that I had a hard time putting it down and enjoyed it.

Why? I think because it had a lot of “heart.” The characters won me over. First Kahlan, then I even started rooting for Richard in the end. Though I must admit I thought the final solution was a bit cheesy (spoiler alert: love conquers all). I guess the whole book was cheesy too. It’s basically Romeo and Juliet where the tragic ending is narrowly averted. It’s a fairy tale, with a (spoiler alert) fairy tale ending.

And on the plus side, it has an ending. There’s no need to read the next book (although I put it on my wish list).

Here’s the caveat: The book does take a while to get rolling. I stopped reading around Chapter 18, when Richard and Kahlan enter the Boundary (somewhere around 30% through). At that point, the only interesting question to me was, “what’s the deal with Kahlan?” But it seemed pretty clear that Goodkind was going to drag that out through the whole book, which was getting annoying.

So, thinking I was done, I went to read some book reviews, and they all kept saying how much sex and violence there was in the book. That blew my mind, because for the first 18 chapters, Wizard’s First Rule is about as softball, G-rated, goody-twoshoes as you can get (like I said, it’s a fairy tale!). So, if only to see what all the fuss was about, I kept reading (actually, er, skimming).

The first instance of “graphic violence” occurs in Chapter 21, p. 210. It’s not really that bad. It’s more of the cartoonish, over-the-top sort of violence you see in, for example, Kill Bill. It almost makes you want to laugh more than cringe. He takes a single moment in time, ratchets up the film speed so it’s in super slow motion, and describes everything in detail. It was a fairly important moment, so I didn’t have a problem with it.

Then the unthinkable happened. Somewhere within Chapters 25 through 28 (the trials and tribulations with the Mud People) is when I first thought to myself, “wow, I think I kind of like this book.” (This is also where the first “sex stuff” happens, which was also PG-13 at worst.) It was a suspenseful time in the book, and one thing Goodkind can do is build suspense. And looking back at it now, I realize it was also the area where the writing switched from Richard’s POV to Kahlan’s POV, which could well have had a lot to do with it. IMO, Kahlan is a way more compelling character than Richard.

Starting in Chapter 29, we are introduced to a young orphan girl named Rachel, who is an adorable kid who could melt the heart of a sociopathic serial killer. She’s a side character on an almost entirely self-contained side adventure. Again, it was pretty suspenseful because I was completely sure that there was no way this sweet, innocent little child would be able to escape the evil clutches of the Bad Queen. But (spoiler alert) being a fairy tale and all, she did.

The infamous “torture porn” (a term used to describe movies like Saw) starts in chapter 41. But instead of being grisly and disturbing like I was led to believe, it was actually one of the most emotionally compelling parts of the book. I think that was the first time I started caring about Richard, and my hat is off to Goodkind for somehow making us genuinely care about his Mord-Sith captor Denna (spoiler alert: Richard gets captured).

And for what it’s worth, I didn’t think it was all that excessively graphic. If your idea of epic fantasy ends at Lord of the Rings, then yeah it would probably be pretty shocking. But it could have been much, much worse… a lot of really graphic details were missing. There were “hints” but almost nothing really shown “on screen.” It was more psychological torture in a way; there was a lot of dialog.

And in defense of the length of it: I think it was necessary to effectively build Denna as a two-dimensional character, and Richard’s relationship with her. One could argue whether a side character needed that level of characterization, I suppose, but it would have been a pretty boring part of the book otherwise.

On Wizard’s First Rule

In catching up on the fantasy genre, I wanted to read popular books that were considered good, and popular books that were considered bad. So now I’m reading Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind, the first in the Sword of Truth series, which for some reason is often seen as the “rival” to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Goodkind is a very devisive writer. People seem to either love him or hate him, which I suppose, is exactly the reception that Robert Jordan gets. Usually people like one or the other, but rarely both.

I have to admit that I started Wizard’s First Rule expecting it to be bad. And, to be honest, the first 18 chapters supported this preconception. But if you make it to chapter 19, the book suddenly becomes pretty compelling. At that point, Goodkind starts building suspense very well, and he is able to communicate a lot of emotional resonance.

For my purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether the book is good or bad. As an aspiring writer trying to learn from established writers, I’m just analyzing the writing, character, setting, and plot. Here are the lessons I’ve learned from Goodkind so far.

Realism is important to an adult audience. I want to be a writer that pays at least some attention to details. Goodkind has said Sword of Truth isn’t really in the fantasy genre, and now I think I understand why. It’s really more of a fairy tale or soap opera than a typical epic fantasy. But I think adult fantasy audiences today require a little more realism. Not necessarily a historical fiction level of realism, but enough to let the reader know that the author has at least given some thought to how a person with medieval technology might light a candle in their tent at night while it’s raining too much to build a fire (see Wizard’s First Rule Chapter 15, p. 150).

Character flaws are vitally important. I want my characters to have flaws. This is pretty self-evident, but Sword of Truth really illustrates the point. In the first eighteen chapters, none of the characters have any flaws. They are all polite, kind to one another, friendly, eager to help, etc. None of them are missing an arm (okay, one is missing a foot), or scarred by their childhood, or tempted by drink, or afraid of spiders, or addicted to crystal meth, or anything like that. The biggest character flaw in Richard is that he’s afraid of getting too angry. (This is not to say the characters don’t have secrets; they have plenty of those.) Addendum: The reader should know the character flaws early in the story. As it turns out, Kahlan has an epic, tragic flaw which is pretty mind-blowing when you get to it, and makes you wonder how a person could possibly live with such a crushing weight on their soul, but you have to wait until Chapter 34 to fully get it.

Magic should have a cost and consequences. I want my magic-users to suffer for their art. Magic is “mysterious” in Sword of Truth in the sense that there is no logical, scientific explanation for it, which is my preference, but it goes too far into the all-powerful fairy tale snap-your-fingers-and-stuff-happens magic. That is, when Zedd the wizard magically holds up a bridge so it doesn’t collapse while they cross, seemingly with just a thought, one has to wonder why the wizard doesn’t use that levitation ability to do other more practical things, like float around so he doesn’t need a horse, or keep all his belongings suspended in the air around him instead of putting them in a backpack, or hell, frickin’ pick up his whole house and carry it with him.

Characters should act like normal humans. I want my characters to behave like ordinary people, not melodramatic stage actors. Most of the characters in Sword of Truth suffer from severe bipolar disorder which manifests as violent mood swings and dramatic outbursts. For example, when a character is irritated by something in a conversation, he might jump to his feet and get angry, or pound his fist on the table at odd moments. I’ve never known a person to “jump to his feet” in reaction to a conversation. It just doesn’t ring true.

Strong emotion loses its impact when overdone. I think that when the characters laugh or cry at the drop of a hat, the emotional impact of what they’re saying or doing starts to diminish over time. Richard and Kahlan certainly have reason to be crying all the time, but when it’s a constant, steady stream, chapter after chapter, it makes the characters seem a bit unstable.

One other amusing observation: All writers and especially new writers tend to repeat a phrase a lot (myself included). Wizard’s First Rule is apparently Goodkind’s debut book, and he is no exception to the rule. The most-repeated phrase so far is: “without emotion” or some variation thereof. “He showed no emotion” or “he betrayed no hint of emotion” or “he said without emotion.” Search for the word “emotion” and it comes up quite a lot.