For some years now, I have spent roughly the last hour of my day before sleep reading. I now realize this was a gigantic mistake, and I don’t recommend any writers do this. Why? Because now when I try to read at any other time of the day, it makes me incredibly sleepy. I have accidentally trained my brain to associate reading with going to sleep. This is an awesome trick if you have trouble sleeping, but it’s not cool at all when you are trying to read more during the day. So I need to figure out how to reverse this.
I’ve been listening to the Writing Excuses podcast lately (which is excellent imo), and Brandon Sanderson often refers to his own works as examples of the points he’s making, so I thought I’d read some of his stuff. First up is Mistborn.
I’m reading this book “critically,” as opposed to reading for pleasure, so I’m making notes along the way about what I think works and what doesn’t. (I think a big part of learning to be an author is learning one’s writing preferences, which might sound silly, but one doesn’t always know what one likes writing when you start.) By the way, calling Mistborn an epic fantasy really stretches the definition of the genre, if you ask me. It feels more steampunky or urban fantasy-ish to me.
So here’s what I’ve learned for myself after reading six chapters. I don’t want to write a heist story. Why? Mainly because the complexity of plotting such a story intimidates me. I don’t do well working from the ending backwards (yet?) and it’s impossible for me to conceive of writing a heist from the beginning forward. It’s an extremely plot-driven kind of story, and I think thusfar I might be more adept at charcter-driven stories.
In chapter 5 we learn all about this thing called Allomancy, which is Sanderson’s magic system in this trilogy. He is known for inventive magic systems, and I have to say that it’s plenty inventive. What I’m learning for myself though is that I prefer magic that is more “mysterious.” What I mean is this: Sanderson explains Allomancy down to the most minute detail; how it works, the power behind it, how it can be used, the advantages, the disadvantages. It’s almost the level of detail you’d expect in hard science fiction (is there such a thing as “hard fantasy?”). There’s nothing really wrong with that, but to me it takes away a lot of wonderment and turns it into something mundane. When I think of magic in a fantasy story, I think of something that would make your jaw drop if you saw it. Something divine, mystical, and mysterious, used by a class of people who are set apart from ordinary men. But that’s just me.
Also in chapter 5 we see a pretty complex fight scene. What I learned here is that detailed fight scenes are hard to follow and not very interesting to read. Particularly when there are a lot of complex gymnastics interspersed with a complex magic system that we are just beginning to understand. You know how in the movies they sometimes slow down a fight to super slo-mo so you can see the super awesome move the guy just made? This fight in chapter 5 would have had like twenty of those super slo-mo shots. It just doesn’t work for me. My fight scenes seem to get less and less detailed the more I write. (Also, in real life, fight scenes don’t last very long, particularly with swords.)
One overall critique I have is this: When I’m reading fantasy, if I notice anything from the modern world that pulls me out of fantasy setting, it’s pretty jarring. So when I’m writing, I try to be conscious of terminology or speech patterns that sound “modern.” In Mistborn, I can see what happens if you don’t. Sanderson has a perfectly logical explanation for this: The person who translated the work from the fantasy world translated the colloqualisms into something we modern readers could relate to. Again, a perfectly logical explanation, which I’ve thought to use myself. But when I actually read the results, it still pulls me out of the world. For example, some dialog in Mistborn goes like this: “That was kind of the point” or “That was so not what I meant.” Not much, mind you. Just occasionally. But those two examples are enough to pull me out of the story and make me think of Seinfeld or Friends. Here’s another example. He used the word “caliginous” in a sentence. First of all, I had to look up what it meant heh. As you might guess just by looking at it, it stems from Caligula, that wacky old Roman Emperor, who should not have been known in the Mistborn world.
One argument I just now thought of against the “translating into modern language” theory is this: Most translations of things like Beowulf and Chaucer don’t do that. They leave the original colloquialisms intact, and I think I will continue to do so in my fantasy writing as well (as long as they make sense to a modern reader).
(By the way, I hate it when I begin a paragraph with a sentence like this: “One thing I’ve noticed is …” or “My feeling on that is …” Why do I keep doing that? Why don’t I go back and fix it?)
Chapter 6 of Mistborn deserves close study. I will freely admit that I am terrible at dialog, so there is a lot I can learn here. The chapter is nothing but a group of people sitting down and brainstorming how to pull off the heist. There are at least six or seven different characters speaking. I won’t say that I could have told them apart without dialog tags, but I did notice certain characters had distinct speaking patterns. For example, one of them said “my dear boy” a lot. Anyway, I found this to be an interesting chapter because I often find myself writing out a character’s problem-solving process (usually one at a time!), but I always want to go back and delete those scenes because the problem was that I had written my character into that corner, so the writing is my way of thinking up a solution to get him out of it. I guess it depends on the character and the situation.
I like to keep both of my fans informed of my work, so here’s what I’m doing.
This month I have been working on revising my NaNoWriMo 2011 novel, and it hasn’t been going very well. I finished close to half of a second draft, wherein I rewrote a lot from scratch, but I had to stop when I sensed a rather major flaw. I like the characters and I particularly like the character relationships, but there is unfortunately a startling lack of plot around them. In fact, the plot that I had intended to be the main focus of the novel back in November doesn’t start until about the halfway point, which I’m pretty sure is not the way these things are supposed to work. Breaking it up into two different novellas is the only way I can imagine rescuing it. I have patched together the first one as a third draft, but it still needs considerable work before it turns into a Three Act Story.
In the meantime I am going to start a new project: A short story about a magic sword.
After that, well, I’m not sure. I just finished watching all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I’m pretty sure is the quintessential template for urban/paranormal fantasy, so I have a few ideas in that area. I want to write something that undermines all modern vampire tropes. For example, one of the vampires might be sort of a Jewish hypochondriac, like Woody Allen, with one of the super old school vampire “powers” like severe OCD. Unfortunately, given the absolute glut of vampires, werewolves, and zombies in urban fantasy right now, it’s impossible for me to believe that such a concept could be sold. But it would still be fun to write.
I’m suffering from a major case of post-nanowrimo depression right now, which I would assume is pretty similar to post-partum depression. Or drug withdrawals.
It’s pretty simple really. The act of creation is so thrilling and stimulating and awesome that when it’s over, there’s nothing left inside but a black empty void of nothingness. For me, it generally manifests as a fervent desire to stare at the walls and feel useless all day. It’s really bad after nanowrimo because a lot of concentrated creative energy is released in a short time, which makes the corresponding crash even worse.
And it’s particularly bad for me this year because I wrote a LOT of words – 90k in 30 days is just ridiculous for me. That’s 3,000 words every day! That’s crazy. Years ago I used to think 1,500 words a day was doing well, and last year I struggled to keep up with the 1,667 words a day needed to reach the 50k finish line.
It takes quite an intentional effort to break out of it and get back to normal daily functioning. (One way to do that, btw, is to write a blog post about it.)
I just finished Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, which I read because it was supposed to be an example of the “fantasy steampunk” genre, although it turned out to be more in the “Lovecraftian horror” genre.
Mieville’s writing is incredibly detailed and imaginative, and he’s pretty creative with his vocabulary, too. In other words, I was using the Kindle’s dictionary feature quite a lot. It wasn’t quite pretentious, but it seemed a tad unnecessary at times.
My biggest (and only) complaint with the book is that I couldn’t connect with anything in it. I didn’t form any emotional bonds with the characters, and, in fact, actively disliked the whiny, inept protagonist Isaac. And the world of Bas-Lag is not pleasant. The fictional steampunkish city of New Crobuzon where this book takes place is an appalling toxic stew of industrial urban ickiness, with Lovecraftian-style monsters, magical creatures, Frankensteinian constructions, and bizarre aliens lurking everywhere. It’s not the sort of place I’d want to visit.
So I don’t think I’ll be reading any more in the Bas-Lag series. It’s a well-crafted book, and nothing like anything I’ve read before, but it just didn’t resonate with me.
What is the backstory of John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt? Why is his name the same as my name? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Jacob_Jingleheimer_Schmidt
It’s odd that so many web sites discussing literary archetypes use the characters from the movie Star Wars as their examples. Aren’t there ANY other movies that have classic archetypes? Or is Star Wars such a cultural touchstone that literally everyone on the planet recognizes it?