Slightly Belated April Update

April’s update, where I come up with a thoroughly disgusting and grisly metaphor.

I was scheduled to finish the first draft of Tel on April 30. I think I did pretty well on that, in that I was indeed finished Monday night. Until I thought of a tiny thing I needed to add to resolve one plot line. Then on Tuesday morning I thought of one other tiny little thing I needed to add to explain what happened to one of the characters.

It made me think of that old logic puzzle (Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, I believe), which I will now adapt to the writing process: Suppose that each day a writer sits down to write, he finishes exactly half of what is left to write. How long does it take him to finish? The answer is forever! That’s pretty much what writing a novel is like. You never “finish” per se, because there is always an infinite number of things you can do to improve it. In order to move on, you have to make a conscious decision to abandon it. I imagine it’s something like having a baby, except that instead of nature performing the normal birthing process, you have to do it yourself by tearing the child from your flesh, leaving behind a massive, bloody cavity of organs, meat, and bone fragments.

Hrm. Yeah, that sounds about right.

So anyway, after I write those two tiny scenes, which I will probably do after I finish writing this post, I will be ready to abandon Tel. (Update written before posting: Those two tiny scenes are done!)

Then what? An excellent question. I am not scheduled to start my next project until June 1. I’ll have four full months to complete that one, so I expect I’m going to set an unprecedented word count goal of 150,000 for it. I used to think that my first novel submission needed to be 90k-100k, but even a 150k book is pretty short in the fantasy field. If I spend a few weeks planning, then the rest of the time writing, I should be able to meet that easily. Assuming there is enough story to fill 150,000 words, which is always a challenge.

In the intervening month of May I could do a number of things. 1) I could do nothing, which would obviously be the easiest thing, but not writing after months of writing would leave a hole in my life akin to the death of a loved one, which would leave me pretty depressed and likely to spend most of my off time playing uselessly unproductive MMOs, and then when June rolls around I won’t feel like writing and I’ll be out of practice to boot. So I’m not sure I like that path.

I could 2) continue working on the Tel draft because of the aforementioned infinite number of things I can do to improve it. However, that doesn’t seem like a productive thing to do either. It feels like this draft is at the point where it needs to be set aside to “simmer” so I can come back to it later. If I had alpha readers, this would be the point where I would send them some chapters to get some feedback.

Or I could 3) do some revisions on a previous draft. This is probably what I’m going to do. I’ll pull out Kubak Outpost, import it into Scrivener, and start revising it to fix all of the known problems in it. I was quite fond of that story but I know it has too many problems to submit it anywhere. If I spend a month correcting those problems (mainly rearranging the order of things, as I recall), I could possibly start sending out query letters for it in June, so I can start building my collection of rejection letters!

First Person Writing

Read using a Seinfeld impersonation: What’s the deal with first person writing?

It seems like nearly every popular book these days is written in first person. And it seems to be a mandatory requirement for the Paranormal/Urban Fantasy genre. They all have the same sort of dry sarcastic narrator. It’s almost like reading a blog post, except a really long one. It’s getting to point where I groan whenever I see another first person book.

This rant was inspired by my reading the the first chapter of Twilight. I figured, since I recently read and liked Hunger Games, I would look at another popular YA book. I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy it, though, so I just got the Kindle sample chapters. It’s in first person. I groaned. Another first person book? With the same dry, sarcastic narrator? Again?? (Twilight also starts out with high school drama, so I won’t be reading any more of it unless I can get it at a serious discount.)

The first first-person books I can remember reading were Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books. So I’ve always considered first person narration to be a device for comedy.

But now there’s Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Name of the Wind*, The Dresden Files, Kushiel’s Dart*, I am Not a Serial Killer, Nice Girls Don’t Have Fangs, The Iron Druid Chronicles – these are all first person books I’ve seen recently. There’s some comedy, but it’s not really the point of them.

* Kushiel’s Dart and Name of the Wind aren’t comedic, but still first person.

I really don’t get the attraction. Is it easier to write first person narratives? It’s always been pretty easy for me to do so, but then I tend to write in my own voice, which does happen to be kind of snarky. Sort of like this post. I consider it more of a challenge to write in third person, particularly with shifting perspectives. Maybe it’s just that there have been so many commercial successes now with first person sarcasm that everyone is just following the crowd.

Maybe it’s simply impossible to write a first-person narrative without humor. But then I thought about Sherlock Holmes. That’s first person, and there is no trace of humor in the narration. Moby Dick is also first person. I’ve only read the first few pages, but there’s nothing remotely funny about it.

Shrug.

On The Fires of Heaven

I finally finished The Fires of Heaven, the fifth book in the Wheel of Time series. I say “finally” because, compared to the three Hunger Games books, Fires of Heaven reads like an encyclopedia.

Apparently this is the book where most people gave up on the series, and I can certainly see why. It’s kind redundant at this point to say “half of the text could have been removed without any effect on the plot,” but it’s never been truer. Yes, yes, it’s all very rich and imaginative detail about the world. But in writing, story is king.

There are three main storylines in this book: 1) Rand leaving the waste with his Aiel horde, 2) Nynaeve and Elayne returning from Tanchico, and 3) Siuan Sanche, the former Amerlyn Seat, searching for the exiled Blue Ajah from the Tower.

Perrin is not in the book at all, which sucks for me because he’s the only one among the ta’veren that I don’t constantly feel like smacking upside the head.

[spoiler] Apparently each one of these books is basically about Rand defeating another one of the Forsaken. Most of this book, Rand talks about Sammael as his adversary, but in the end Jordan pulled a switch-a-roo and he actually went after Rahvin, who is Gaebril, the guy who ensorceled Queen Morgase. Everyone thinks Morgase is dead, but she just went underground.

So Morraine finally dies in this book, something that I’ve been expecting to happen for quite some time, considering how often she talks about her own demise with Lan. And in this book in particular, her behavior radically changes in a way that telegraphs both her imminent death and the fact that she knows it’s coming soon. On the plus side, she took Lanfear with her, which was a bit of a surprise to me. Of course, we never saw the bodies, so I have to assume they aren’t really dead, and they’ll be back in another book. Because everyone knows that in fiction, if there’s no body, or if we didn’t actually see them die, they aren’t dead.

I have to admit I wasn’t sad to see Morraine go. She has had no significant role in these books since the first one (besides being a constant irritant, that is).

Nothing new to report with Nynaeve or Elayne, except that their constant cat-fighting is getting very, very old. Nynaeve somehow managed to help Rand defeat Rahvin in the end through the dream world thingy, but I’m not precisely sure how that happened. Jordan has a way of describing scenery and history in excruciating detail, but he is not great at writing clear action scenes. [/spoiler]

The Sovereign of Tel Draft Completed

I have finished what could loosely be defined as a “first draft” of The Sovereign of Tel. Now what??

Okay, here’s the sitch. I have finished what could loosely be defined as a “first draft” of The Sovereign of Tel. (Although, technically, it is the third draft of the March project. It’s hard to define these things. The first revision might not count since it was a totally different story and world.)

Now I face the same dilemma I had after I finished a draft of Kubak Outpost. I’ve imported everything into Scrivener for Windows, which, sadly, is the best thing out there for novel management on Windows, as far as I can tell. So now I can look at the draft from a very high level for the first time. (I used WriteMonkey during the actual writing.)

Wow, it needs work. I can clearly see that I wasn’t really into it through the entire first half of the draft. Almost all of it would need to be redone before I would feel comfortable with it. Also, the focus of the novel changed over time. Also, some sub-plots were started but I could never work them back in later. Also, it doesn’t really have a beginning.

So here’s my question. (If any of the Writing Excuses folk happen to see this, it would be an awesome topic for a podcast.) I’ve written this draft, but I know it needs work. Should I a) shelve it and go to my next project, and try not to repeat the same mistakes, or b) take some time to fix it up now while it’s still fresh in my mind?

Decision, decisions.

Subject-less Sentences

I noticed another little trick Suzanne Collins used to pull readers along at breakneck speed in The Hunger Games. I hadn’t noticed it in the first two books, but I saw it often in Mockingjay, the last book.

She often clips the subjects off of sentences, especially in scenes of intense action or confusion. For example, she might take a paragraph like this:

I walk into the room. I open the curtains. Then I put some clothes in the washing machine.

And turn it into this:

I walk into the room. Open the curtains. Put some clothes in the washing machine.

It reads ten times faster, but it also seems to devalue the action occurring in those clipped sentences, as if the narrator doesn’t consider it important. It all sort of blurs together, and the eye just skips over them. It almost feels like this:

I walk into the room. Yada yada yada.

I don’t really have an opinion on whether it’s good or bad, it’s just something I noticed. Another tool for the tool belt.

Stay tuned for what I hope will be a Hunger Games wrap-up post, because I’ve been writing way too much about it lately.

Hunger Games Descriptions

As I’m reading the Hunger Games trilogy (I’m on the last book now), I am trying to analyze why it is so popular and addictive. The story is okay, the characters are okay, the setting is okay, but somehow it adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe it’s all marketing.

One thing I noticed just now, which contributes to the fast-paced, concise text: There are hardly any descriptions of the settings. Most of it must be filled in by the reader’s imagination. As an example, from Chapter 6 of Mockingjay:

…the doors open on the Hangar.

“Oh,” I let out involuntarily at the sight of the fleet. Row after row of different kinds of hovercraft.

That’s it. That’s literally the entire description of what in my mind must be a giant facility with tons of unfamiliar and interesting stuff to look at and describe. (In the movie version, I’m sure it will be an elaborate CG-enhanced shot that the characters will be walking through.) Collins only writes a hint of where the characters are. But somehow it’s enough to get us from scene A to scene B. And because we’re really only interested in finding out what happens next, we don’t really care.

Maybe lack of description is a “feature” of Young Adult books. I suppose I’ll have to suck it up and read some other YA books to find out.

Anyway, for me, as a person who constantly worries that I’m not writing enough description, it’s a big relief to know that a hit book doesn’t require much.

P.S. “I let out involuntarily?” Really?

Hunger Games Dialog Tags

One thing I forgot to mention about The Hunger Games: The dialog tags. It’s funny the things you notice when you’re an aspiring writer. Suzanne Collins uses the “X said” model when Katniss says something, but uses the “said X” model when other people speak. Like this:

“I’m leaving,” I say.

“You can’t,” says John.

But then, if she uses a pronoun, she goes back to the “X said” model. (Obviously, because “says he” would be dumb.)

“John, I’m leaving,” I say.

“You can’t,” he says.

And just to make it interesting, she occasionally switches it up and does this:

“I’m going,” I say.

“You can’t,” John says.

Maybe the “said X” model is a young adult thing. I’m listening to Partials by Dan Wells (which is another dystopian young adult science fiction-ish book, coincidentally, *wink* *nudge*), and all of his dialog tags are “said X,” too.

On The Hunger Games

I finally get around to reading Hunger Games. (See what I did there?) I think it’s not terrible. It’s a decent action adventure yarn, but it’s not very deep, which I suppose is normal for a young adult book. It has a Dan Brown sort of flavor to it. I would have given it three stars out of five (“I liked it”) on GoodReads, except I did not like the ending, so I went back down to two stars (“it was ok”).

It takes me some time to get used to the first person, present tense writing. It’s not my favorite style. Later I realize there is a certain cadence to the writing. The sentences tend to be the same length. The sentences tend to be constructed the same way. All of the sentences end on a down beat. All of the sentences end with a noun. It hypnotizes the reader into reading more. Every chapter ends in a cliffhanger sentence. The reader is yanked, kicking and screaming, into reading the next chapter almost every time. The book ends on one of those cliffhanger sentences, and it really irritates me because I don’t want to get the second book (unless I see it on sale, as I did the first book). [I borrowed it with Amazon Prime for free!]

In the first third of the book, we are introduced to Katniss Everdeen and this dystopian world of the future, ruled by the Capitol, which I assume we are supposed to think is scarily similar to our own media-obsessed America. While there is a kernel of truth in it, I have a hard time suspending disbelief because I can’t see how this Panem society could ever develop or sustain itself, and we are not told much about the historical details of this place. It would have been much better if Panem existed in an alternate world, instead of trying to explain how it evolved out of modern day America. I surmise that young adults don’t care about that stuff, so I let it go.

The book gets considerably better when we start the actual Hunger Games, where we revert to a straight-up action suspense thriller story, which is pretty cool. Basically they stick Kat and twenty-three other kids (twelve to eighteen) in the wilderness and make them fight to the death. Who doesn’t like stories of people fighting to the death? I can see this part making a good movie. We’re supposed to be horrified about the deaths of these kids, but they don’t act like kids so it’s okay. There are no real surprises here. Kat makes relatively smart decisions (except a few bone-headed ones which she gets away with). Plot obstacles are overcome by helpful items floating down from the sky on parachutes (literally). It gets a little mushy at one point, in a young adult sort of way. What I assume was supposed to be a shocking twist could be seen a mile away. The final confrontation between the last three tributes feels a little weird and contrived and somewhat unsatisfactory, because they really didn’t confront each other.

On reflection, there was a lot of potential for agonizing conflict left on the table in the arena. At no point is Kat faced with having to kill someone that she likes, or even someone who is likable, so she has no moral dilemmas to overcome. The bad guys are clearly bad guys without any souls or personality, so we don’t mind them dying. (Some of them literally have no names.)

After she survives the games (spoiler alert: Kat survives), I want her to lead these districts in overthrowing the Capitol. Because, really, I think 75 years of these games is enough time for someone to figure out how to overthrow this circus of a government, don’t you? At the very least, Kat should grab her family and frickin’ leave town. There’s a bazillion square miles of area in North America to hide in. I assume this kind o thing is what the other two books are about (what else is there to do?), but the prospect of wading through Kat’s feelings about these two dudes to get to that conclusion is a bit revolting. [I read that there is another arena in the second book, so I’m a lot more interested in reading it now.]

So in short, start with The Lottery, add The Running Man and a touch of the obligatory young adult teen love triangle, and you’ve got the pop culture phenomenon known as The Hunger Games.