Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is a pretty good psychological thriller/mystery.

Gone Girl

Someone at work recommended Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, so I got it from Audible with one of my credits. This same person also recommended Hunger Games, so my expectations were not very high. But as it turns out, Gone Girl is a pretty good psychological thriller/mystery.

Overall the book makes some pretty strong feminist statements, as well as having some brutal social commentary about the state of the media and judicial system. It had a pretty big twist about halfway through, which I did not see coming at all, so congratulations to the author for completely fooling me. I can’t elaborate without spoiling it, so if you haven’t read it, you might want to skip the rest of this.

[spoiler]The reader is subtley and not-so-subtley led to believe that one character is an unreliable narrator, but it turns out that the other character is really the unreliable one. It was a great example of surprising-but-inevitable. Once it’s revealed, you think, “Oh, of *course* it’s like that! I should have seen it.”[/spoiler]

The book is presented as two different first-person points of view, which is somewhat unusual. There were no issues figuring which one was which, because each chapter was labeled with the speaker. I believe most of it was in present tense, though I think there was some past tense as well. I’d have to go back and check on that. Present tense seems to be really in vogue these days.

One thing I did not like was that at one point a character broke the fourth wall and more-or-less directly addressed the reader. I found it unnecessary. It only happened for one chapter, which made it especially odd.

I Think It’s Dead

I need to decide: Should I put more work into recessitating Airworld, or just let it die?

Iconic image of a funeral pyre.. you know the movie, right?

I think it’s dead. Airworld, that is.

It’s been almost a year since Naobi strode from her Orderhouse without looking back, determined to move forward. It was an opening sentence that was carefully crafted to show that the character had autonomy right from the very beginning, taking action instead of reacting, physically moving through space. All the things that we aspiring writers are told will make readers more likely to keep reading.

But somewhere along the way, the story fell apart. Well, not somewhere. One specific, exact moment. (The moment when Naobi stands trial in Leavon, fyi.) All at once the characters lost their control over events and turned into victims. I know precisely what the problem is. I know precisely what to do to fix it: The characters need to take charge and get out of trouble themselves, rather than wait for someone else to help (or hurt) them.

But now that I know what to do, I don’t know how to go about doing it. How is Naobi supposed to escape from a cell and evade an entire town? How is Cheton supposed to help her when he’s beaten up and unconscious? Where are they even supposed to go? I have no idea. So when I sit down to write, I stare at a blank editor for a while, then close it and do something else.

This is not good. When you’re looking at a blank editor screen, re-working a novel more-or-less from scratch sounds like a lot of hard work. It sounds incredibly daunting – a giant mountain peak that I can’t get over by jumping or any other means.

I’ve tried skipping the part where I’m stuck to write some other parts later in the story. But somehow it never felt quite right. I’ve tried writing a detailed outline with extensive worldbuilding to plot out all these new characters and their interactions and backgrounds, and come up with a war with three factions. Then I realized that all of that stuff takes the story far, far away from the simple adventure it started out to be, and it would be silly to introduce such complexity over halfway through the book anyway. My latest assessment is that the events that occur in Leavon need to fundamentally change to make the rest of the story work.

Now, almost a year later, I need to decide: Should I put more work into recessitating Airworld, or just let it die?

Well, I’ve decided. It’s dead. Into the stack of unfinished ideas it goes. It doesn’t even deserve to go into the stack of finished-but-needs-work pile with Neofuel and Kubak and Tel.

It’s time to reset and start something new.

Here’s one lesson I can take from this.

When I’m writing a first draft, I spend too much time and effort trying to come up with solutions that are realistic and make sense. Ones that people can’t point to and say, “Wait a minute, how can he pick that lock when you never said he was a skilled locksmith?” Or, “Wait a minute, how did they cross fifty miles of mountain terrain on foot in two days?” Those are the kinds of things that saavy readers will notice, and SFF readers tend to be pretty saavy.

But in the first draft, accuracy doesn’t matter. In the first draft, the solution to every unexpected problem should be magical faery dust. He picked that lock by blowing on it and concentrating really hard. They moved fifty miles in two days because they jumped right over the top of those peaks like Superman.

I feel like this was a major problem with Airworld. In real life, Naobi and Cheton would not be able to escape from a 17th century cell. There’s no sensible way to get them out of there. Leave a key hanging on the wall? No, why would anyone do that? It’s a movie cliche! Squeeze through a window? No, there wouldn’t be any windows in a 17th century cell. Break open the lock? No, give me a break. They don’t have any hammers anyway. Bend the bars? No way, it’s solid steel. They are stuck. At the mercy of their captors. In real life, their quest would probably end there.

In the future, if I have my characters locked up in an inescapable prison, and my outline says they need to escape, then they need to escape by any means necessary. “Later that day, they escaped.” That’s what the draft will say, with some kind of marking to indicate that I should probably expand upon that later. I might be tempted to say something like, “A man came along and helped them escape,” because obviously in real life they would *need* help to escape an inescapable prison. But for the purposes of storytelling it is much better for the characters to act on their own.

So, I need to keep that in mind. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that accuracy in the first draft doesn’t matter.

Deconstructing The Hunger Games

Okay, I have figured out the magical formula for making a hit dystopian science fiction Young Adult book.

(This unpublished gem has been sitting in my drafts since April 16, 2012.)

The Hunger Games
Stolen image of The Hunger Games’s book cover from Amazon.com.

Okay, I have figured out the magical formula for making a hit Young Adult book. It’s really quite easy.

The story elements in The Hunger Games:

A smart and tough, but emotionally vulnerable hero.

A love triangle with a bunch of confused feelings.

A personal vendetta against a villain.

A villain that singles out the hero for humiliation.

A powerful government regime oppressing the rights of the people.

An underdog rebel force fighting for freedom.

A last-man-standing fight to the death that the hero must survive.

A series of deadly tricks and traps for the hero(s) to overcome.

A caricature or exaggeration of modern American society.

The writing style in The Hunger Games:

First person, present tense.

Very concise, easy-to-read prose.

Cliffhanger chapter endings.

Sparse descriptions.

Very few adverbs.

Taboos in The Hunger Games:

I don’t know if this is true of all Young Adult books, and now I’m pretty curious to find out, but I found it amusing to note that, apparently, the subject matter of a Young Adult novel is very specific about what must be censored. What I mean is this: You can put kids into an arena and have them kill each other with swords and spears and bows, in extremely gory detail. You can drop bombs on groups of kids, then have people rush in to help them, then drop more bombs on the helpers. You can burn people, you can decapitate people, you can dismember people.

But you cannot swear, ever. And you absolutely positively MUST NOT mention anything more sexual than a kiss.

Ender’s Game

I just finished the audiobook for Ender’s Game.

I just finished the audiobook for Ender’s Game, which I have never read before. I’ve missed quite a few science fiction classics over the years, so I’m trying to make up for it with my Audible credits. The audiobook, by the way, was very well read.

I don’t know what I would have thought if I’d read this book when I was younger, but now, I found it to be a tragically depressing story. Basically it’s about the military using a child to commit genocide on an alien race.

I think the reason this book has been so well-received over the years is that it’s not a typical science-fiction book. Most SF books tend to be about the science, and the characters and story are pretty secondary. For example, I listened to The Mote in God’s Eye about a year ago – a brilliant, classic SF book – but I couldn’t tell you the name of any of the the characters or anything about their personalities or any of the problems they faced. But I could tell you a fair amount about the Moties and their culture and their evolution, because that was the main focus of the book. The story was just a vehicle to write about an interesting alien species.

But in Ender’s Game, the science takes a back seat. The science is almost non-existent, actually. We are never told exactly *how* Ender interacts with his games, for example. It could be a keyboard, a touch screen, telepathy, switches and levers, or anything in between. It doesn’t really matter. The book is all about Ender the boy and his interactions with other boys and girls. If it had been *just* Ender and his struggles with not wanting to kill people yet being trained to kill people, that would have been pretty dull, because that story has been done to death. But with the addition of his mean older brother and his compassionate older sister, it turned into a kind of touching family story.

As I was reading, I noticed there was very little set description in it. Most of it took place in the proverbial white fog, which is somewhat unusual I think for science fiction. I don’t remember any descriptions of the Battle School, or the Command School. I had no real sense of what any of the "games" looked like. Maybe that is another reason the book made such an impact. It gives me hope because I don’t feel like I’m very good at describing settings.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

I started listening to steampunk audiobook Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.

I started listening to steampunk audiobook Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, which I have heard from multiple sources is a great series, and the premise intrigued me as it is an alternate history of World War I. Also, later books in the series won awards and stuff.

Unfortunately, nobody told me that this was a young adult series, where the two protagonists are 16-ish. In fact, I would argue that this is not just young adult, but middle grade, because the kids act like middle grade kids and are usually accompanied by adult guides. They aren’t "rebeling" like most of the kids in young adult books.

That by itself wouldn’t bother me – although I probably would not have bought it if I’d known it beforehand, because I generally do not relate at all to the trials and tribulations of middle grade kids and young adults. No, I still might like this book if it weren’t for one thing: The plot seems like a thinly-veiled excuse to explore the worldbuilding.

A great deal of time is spent describing these mechanical contraptions called "walkers" and these genetically-created airbourne creatures that float like balloons. The protagonists just happen to be on a path that comes in contact with these neat worldbuilding things. Alek just happens to be learning to drive a walker, and ends up running from pursuers in a walker, and Dylan just happens to want to join the navy and fly, and just happens to get stuck on a flying leviathan by chance. Even that contrivance wouldn’t bother me if the characters pulled me into their stories. Unfortunately, I find that I don’t care the slightest bit about these two kids. Maybe I am biased against kid protagonists in general, but their problems just don’t interest me. Dylan is a girl dressing up as a boy so she can fly with the others – how many times has *that* plot been done – but so far, her part could have been played by a boy just as well. Alek is the son of the Archduke Ferdinand who was assassinated to start World War I – that could have been interesting, but Prince Alek does not seem to have any emotional depth, and he comes across as a petulent child.

<Time passes.>

I am now about 2/3rd through the audiobook, having listened mostly without paying a lot of attention, and the two main characters finally ran into each other. My internal wannabe editor tells me that this is where the book *should* have started, because the relationship between these two characters from radically different worlds makes the book funny and compelling. Far more compelling than their individual lives.

Latest Audibooks I’ve Listened To

I’ve been on an audiobook kick lately.

I’ve been on an audiobook kick lately. I realize it’s “cheating” to listen to a book instead of read it, but it’s just so darn convenient. You can actually accomplish other things simultaneously while listening to a book (like driving, washing dishes, playing games, paying bills, etc.), whereas if you read a book, it’s pretty much all you can do.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, read by Wil Wheaton. Great nostalgia book, although I could have lived without the cliche “real world is better than the virtual world” moral.

Hunted by Kevin Hearne, read by Luke Daniels. The latest in the Iron Druid Chronicles (#6 I think). Another highly entertaining episode from the life and times of Atticus O’Sullivan, this time covering his run across Europe while being chased by Roman and Greek hunting goddesses Diana and Artemis. This is the only “series” that I religiously keep up with. I like the IDC because Luke Daniels is an incredibly good reader, Hearne is a good story-teller, and the stories go into a lot of interesting mythology without being too cheesy. Also, it’s one of the few Urban Fantasy series that doesn’t focus on vampires and werewolves.

Redshirts by John Scalzi, read by Wil Wheaton. This book is awesome. I listened to the entire ~8 hours on a Saturday. I loved it because it’s the kind of thing I might have written, except I would have considered it way too absurd and silly for anyone but me to find it amusing. I also would have been too obsessed with trying to come up with a logical reason for *why* fictional characters would become sentient – Scalzi made no such attempt – they just are (or else the explanation is so obscure that I missed it). It’s a book that starts out being unabashedly comedic, then gets pretty serious and thought-provoking by the time the three codas come around.

Inferno by Dan Brown, read by Paul Michael. It showed up on the front page on Audible, so I got it with one of my credits. Whatever, so sue me. This book is pretty much exactly the same as every previous Robert Langdon book: He meets a woman and together they run from secret organizations and the government while decrypting puzzles. This time, the lessons are about Dante’s Inferno and excessive global population. Paul Michael is a good reader; it’s a lot more entertaining to listen to Dan Brown than to read it.