Musings on writing, lessons learned by an aspiring professional, book reviews, movie reviews, an occasional t.v. show review, and unashamed opinion.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Trouble with the Curve

This isn't a review for the Clint Eastwood movie, sorry. I don't have any interest in seeing it. Don't care for baseball. What this post is about is the learning curve found in fiction. Is it wise for writers to make their curve steep? Or should they create a gradual climb, easing readers into a story? It's an important decision writers need to make before beginning a novel.

Avoid the vertical learning curve.
You'll lose your audience before your
story makes it off the ground.
Every book has a learning curve. Whether it's fantasy, science fiction, historical, or modern-day thriller, every story has information in it that readers will have to learn in order to understand or fully appreciate it. How quickly should an author deal out this information? I've read books that do it every which way, which means there isn't a right or wrong way to do it. There are benefits and problems, however, no matter how you do it. Here are some examples:

Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling is a great example of how a writer would ease an audience in to a fantastical world. First of all, she begins her series with one point of view character. One boy, living in a normal world, with a boring life, and a few family members with easy-to-remember names. Her story, of course, is about an entire magical world hiding in plain sight, and so she introduces readers to said world a few steps at a time. By the time Harry reaches Hogwarts, we're totally sold on the world. We don't know how it works just yet, but she hasn't lost us with any difficult terms or concepts. By the end of the series, she has taken readers much deeper into the fantastical, introducing things left and right that we are expected to keep up with. Rowling uses the gradual curve to great effect. 

George R.R. Martin is another household name in fantasy, so let's talk about his great epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin's world starts with a much steeper curve than Rowlings, but he is writing to an adult audience, most of which have already been reading thick fantasy novels by the time they pick up his work. So is his curve a huge one that readers should be scared of? I don't think so. Yes, there are a lot of names and places mentioned in the beginning of the series that you'll quickly lose track of. The thing about his series, though, is that all of the important world information is repeated so many times that by the time you need to know it you've gotten it all down. What Martin does is brilliant. He has this huge world, with a large cast of view-point characters, but he starts all of the pov's--with the exception of one--off in the same location. This way, we are introduced to a lot of people, but they keep referring to each other and it is easy to keep up. Martin's curve will be steeper for newcomers to epic fantasy, but fairly normal for those who have read the genre before.

Steven Erikson is the best example that I've come across of a writer with a ridiculous curve. I think his is very nearly vertical at the beginning. If you want to know what I'm talking about, open up Gardens of the Moon--the first in his Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I've been reading epic fantasy for more than ten years and he lost me on that one...

Now you can get a feel for what I'm talking about. So, what are the pros and cons? A gradual curve will make it easier for readers to digest. It will probably mean you'll have a wider audience, which can translate into major success. The gradual thing has been done to death, though, and so experienced readers might roll their eyes and not give your "simple" story a try. If the learning curve is significant you can deliver a world that feels completely real--every corner can be fleshed out, every character explored. You'll probably have some hard core fans that will defend your story with their own blood. That hard core group might be small, though, and so your book could be great, but not widely read. Really, it's up to the writer to decide the type of story they want to tell, and then tell it. 

That's all.  

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Will you please just cuss already?

So, I have a bit of a rant I need to get out. I've talked about it before, but never in a post dedicated solely to the subject. Here it is: I'm sick of... nay, I loathe fake swearing in adult fiction. I hate it in YA, too, but I understand a little why it is a good idea to use there. But in stories for adults? There's no excuse. I don't care if it's more polite, more diplomatic, even more creative because it falsely gives readers a sense that they're in another world. Please, authors, stop doing it. It is plain dumb.

Now that I've got that out, let me take a step back. I need it to be clear that I'm not a fan of gratuitous language. I'm not a fan of gratuitous anything. I think that all things in fiction ought to be taken in good measure. So no, I don't want F words all over the page, or disrespectful terms for human anatomy every other paragraph. What I do want is for characters to feel real. This is the most important thing for me in fiction. In fact, it's the reason I read--to get inside another person's head, to see what they see, and feel what they feel. If I happen to be in a soldier's head, or a thief's, I want the experience to be truthful to that individual. This means when they cuss they need to cuss!

What about fantastical worlds, or futuristic worlds where language and terms differ from ours? This is the big question, really. Does it pull readers deeper into your world if you have made-up swear words? I submit that it does not. In fact, it detracts from said world rather glaringly. Why? Because it feels FALSE!

Fiction is a bunch of lies strung together into a story. Stories by their very nature are untrue. Even the ones that are based on truth. Parts are always either exaggerated for effect, remembered wrong, or purposefully skewed to make the teller look better. If we wanted just the facts we'd be labeling them as reports, rather than stories. All this is true, right? *everyone nods in agreement, or rolls eyes in exasperation* So what's the deal with fake swearing being bad? If fiction is false, and fake swearing is ridiculously false because it's... well, fake, then who cares? Shouldn't everything be fine and dandy? No, is the correct answer--in case you were wondering. It's not okay, because a story ought to be told in a way that the lie at its heart is forgotten. The best stories are the ones people believe in. The best stories are the ones that seem real. And so, please, please, please, just frick'n cuss already. (Best to keep the blog clean, I think... but if this were one of my novels, boy--I'd be drowning this post in obscenities!)

You know you want to. You know it'll feel good. You know it'll make your story feel more real because made-up swear words just sound dumb... no matter how cool you think they are. Words are power. They are meant to cause specific reactions. A reader's reaction (mine, anyway) falls completely flat when fake words are substituted in place of real ones. This destroys any credibility in a character or scene. Just stop.

Comments? Favorite naughty words you like to use? (Kidding, don't tell me.)

That's all.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cursor's Fury

The third book in the Codex Alera series is, I think, the best of them so far. Jim Butcher is such a great storyteller. The world he has created in these books keeps getting deeper and more defined. It is an epic fantasy series every fan of the genre should read.

Two more years have passed between books. Tavi, now 19, is sent out on an important mission from the First Lord--to impersonate an officer in a newly formed legion, to learn what he can about the movements of the treacherous High Lord Kalare. The legion is supposed to be a safe place for Tavi, but then an invasion of Canim--a wolf-like people--threatens the realm and Tavi's legion is called to action. Tavi is thrust into a brutal battle that could very well mean the destruction of his people should the legion falter.

Meanwhile, the other characters do stuff that didn't really interest me.

For me, fantasy is all about the huge battles. It's what I like. As long as it's done well. Butcher does it well.

I say this is the best in the series so far. It is, but I have to admit that some of the side characters are starting to get on my nerves.

Minor spoilers ahead (for the series and book 3)

Bernard and Amara, for example. Their romance reached a high point in the last book (Academ's). In Cursor's, however, I felt their blushing and sultry looks at each other were unbelievable. They've been married for two years, for crying out loud. They're still acting like annoying newly-weds.

A few minor quibbles. I wouldn't be me if I didn't have any. Cursor's Fury was an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. 4.5 out of 5 stars makes it the best rated in the series so far. Whether you listen like me, or pick this one up to read, you won't regret the time spent in Butcher's fantastic world. (Best to start at the beginning of the series, though.)


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Academ's Fury

Academ's Fury is the second book in Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series, and picks up two years after the first.  I liked the first book, despite its issues, but I really enjoyed this second entry.  Butcher expands on the world, the magic, and most importantly the characters.  If you've started the series but stopped after book one, keep going!  I think that this series is as good as any epic fantasy being written.

The main character, Tavi, has gone to the capital of Alera to be the First Lord's page.  Also, he is enlisted in the academy, and is training in secret as a cursor--one of the First Lord's spies.  A threat to the nation arises in the Calderon Valley (again) and Tavi and his family are thrust into the forefront of the action.  Tavi is the only known person in all of Alera without fury crafting abilities.  He is forced to use his wit and cursor training to defend his people.

My main problem with the first book was its pacing, which seemed never to let up.  While AF is probably about as fast in its pacing, for whatever reason it seemed to work better this time around.  Maybe because I didn't have to be introduced to the characters and world.

Kate Reading is great as the series narrator.  Still wished there was a man (preferably her husband who narrates Robert Jordan's books with her) for the male pov's, but Reading does a good enough job that I was able to just get lost in the story and not worry about a woman narrating a man's part.  I highly recommend listening to AF.

If you're into epic fantasy you most likely love the sub-genre for all of the reason I do.  We've already made it through the learning curve in this series by book two, so now it's time to reveal a bit of the past, and give more hints as to where the series is going as a whole.  I love when a fantasy digs deeper.  It's so fun to be immersed in a world that has been fully fleshed out, instead of one that it just a facade.  Butcher knows his business.  His talents as a story crafter are on full display in AF.  

Adventure, action, romance, epic battles, and cool magic.  Academ's Fury has it all.  I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What the crap is Epic Fantasy?

My post about space opera seemed to have been a bit of a hit, so I thought I'd take the time to spell-out other sub-genres of fantasy and science fiction for those of you unfamiliar with all of the minor and sometimes major differences.  I figured I'd get to my favorite now, and plan on doing more in the future.  So here we are, ready to learn about epic fantasy.

 What the crap is epic fantasy? Epic fantasy, sometimes referred to as high fantasy, is fantasy that takes place in a secondary world, such as Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, and is almost always (pretty much used to be always, until recently) about an entire world in danger.  It is about big, sweeping stories that can span continents.  More often than not stories in this genre have huge casts of characters, making plot and story complex and extremely detailed.  This isn't your little brother's fantasy, folks.  It is... well... epic.  

I hate calling it that (despite it being called that) because the word has become quite trendy these days, and you can no longer be sure what someone means by it.  If someone likes something they almost always call it epic.  It's the hip word of choice.  What happened to the good old days when everyone just said cool?  Oh well.  I'm getting off topic.  Here are a few things you can count on finding in your epic fantasy:

-A well-defined magic system, or magic not so rule-based but that is used heavily throughout the story--also known as hard and soft magic.  It is important to include both hard and soft magic as being allowed in the genre, despite most epic fantasies these days leaning toward hard.  I don't think I ought to get in to defining hard and soft magic this time, but I'll do a post on it in the future so that this makes more sense.  The basic thing you need to know is that magic is important to epic fantasy.  Stories in this genre can exist without magic (George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is pretty light on magic) but ninety percent of the time is full of it.

-A hero's journey archetype.  This is where one character--usually a young boy or girl on the verge of adulthood--begins the story powerless, and ends the story all-powerful.  Usually this means saving the world from destruction, and defeating evil.

-Political intrigue.  Epic fantasy moves at a slower pace than other genres.  It isn't all about the action.  Epic fantasy takes time to delve into national politics and court machinations.  It explores conflicts from multiple angles.  This is almost always my favorite part of these types of stories.

-Milieu.  Because epic fantasy takes place in a world not our own, pages and pages are spent on world building.  This is one of the biggest reasons epic fantasies are so darn thick.  Most readers read this genre because of the interesting worlds authors create.  Middle Earth is a place readers want to spend time in because it is so full of wonder.  If you're reading a fantasy taking place in familiar New York City, you, my friend, are not reading epic fantasy.

Most epic fantasy takes place in a pseudo-European medieval world, though it is increasingly popular to set these stories in Renaissance-esque settings, or other culture-influenced worlds (Silk Road settings are a new favorite).  Also, fantastical races, such as elves, dwarves, or goblins, are common.  (These days authors come up with their own races, rather than relying on those already familiar to readers.)

There you have it.  I hope you know a bit more about epic fantasy than you did before reading.  Here are some books to check out if you are wanting to give this sub-genre some time:

The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan
The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin
The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
The Runelords, by David Farland
Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (considered the grandfather of modern fantasy)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

October giveaway at inkPageant

Hey there.  The awesome people over at inkPageant are giving away a Kindle Fire this October to celebrate their first year on the interweb.  What is inkPageant you ask?  Well, it's a really cool place where tons and tons of blogs are collected that focus on the many aspects of writing.  There's book reviews, how-to advice, does and don'ts of publishing, and so many more cool blogs that have been useful and informative to me in my own writing.  I've discovered several blogs through inkPageant that I now follow regularly, and have picked up a few followers of my own this way (thanks, ya'll).  Head on over to the site to check out the contest rules.

 Support inkPageant by reading and submitting to them.  It's a great place to grow your audience, and to meet like-minded writers, all aspiring to make it into the pros.  Who knows--you might just get a Kindle Fire for participating.