When Daniel Abraham wrote his debut novel, A Shadow In Summer, it was well received by those who bothered to notice. It was understood by critics, peers, and readers that Abraham was a new force of creativity in a genera growing dark with cliché. But it was quickly buried by other’s popularity.
Hugo Award winning author, Connie Willis, named it “intricate, elegant, and almost hypnotically told.” And there is really something about it – a peripheral sensation, stunningly poetic that manages to remain untainted by an over-abundance of style. By this, I mean to say it’s simply written and intricately thought. The wisdom of the narrator’s voice washes over its readers, leaving them with a notion that something right has just been said. I couldn’t always name it. But isn’t that the hazy definition of the sublime?
My apologies. It’s a bit too early in a post to get philosophical. The fact is, this is shameless promotion of four novels that changed the way I saw fantasy. When I finished the series I was actually surprised to realize that it may have been my favorite series ever.
Why was I surprised? Because these humble, near-perfect novels are not at all flashy. And that might begin to account for it’s dismal shelf life. Tor actually dropped Abraham soon after the fourth was printed. Too bad for them that Orbit picked Daniel up, dusted him off and reprinted the series in a two-part omnibus. And his new series is selling very well.
Taking place in a world rich with Asian culture and delicate as fine calligraphy, Abraham spins a story about two young men growing up in a world that has no place for them. The author’s descriptions of the hubristic Empire and the characters that try to save it reads like a Greek tragedy and will steal your breath.
And the Andat – god-like manifestations of elemental thoughts held as slaves by the Empire’s poets – are an exceptional creation amounting to creative genius. The dialogue of one andat called Seedless made him a favorite character of mine despite the fact that he wasn’t even human. It’s really a joy to read, and keeps you captivated.
So if you have the time and want to read something that fell more in league with Homer than George Martin (Homer has still sold more books) – if you want an epic that won’t leave you unscathed by tragedy – or by wisdom – then delve into an author that will probably never land on the “best sellers” shelf, but shouldn’t escape the notice of aspiring writers and discerning readers.
Because when you finish, you’ll have witnessed a rich world and an amazing story.
Like the Hobbit, it was difficult to separate the movie experience from my loyalty to the book. After seeing the trailer of Ender’s Game, I was tentatively excited. It had potential. It looked pretty good. I thought I might like it. On the other hand, I wasn’t convinced it could live up to the book. And it didn’t…
Naturally, things had to be left out for a cohesive and understandable 2-hour movie ride. Things did seem to move too quickly at times, but don’t they always in movies these days? I missed the battle room at the end of each scene involving it. I felt almost nostalgic about the room when Ender finally left it behind in the book because he and his team spent so much of their time there. It was similar to the way I felt about Hogwarts in the seventh Harry Potter. How could I enjoy the final novel without the fun daily adventures of life at Hogwarts?
No such nostalgia in the movie, but aside from that the overall pathos of the story arrived on screen intact. We share Ender’s emotional pain as he faces each opponent, knowing his ability to destroy them utterly, and at the same time understanding them and loving them tragically. I’ve never read or seen another character quite like Ender. He is as much tortured by the violence he sees in himself from his brother Peter as he is befuddled by the compassion he has learned from his sister. And the movie executes his character flawlessly, which is rare.
That integrity is what immediately captured me (more than the visual effects, which were nothing to scoff at). And I suspect that those who have never read the book will still be able to see Ender clearly as Card created him on the pages. It wouldn’t have been possible without the impressive acting of Asa Butterfield and the heart-renching relationship he has to Harrison Ford’s character, Colonel Graff. Emotionally traumatic as Graff’s character is in the book, the movie directors plus Ford’s acting managed to unleash the same feelings on the movie-goers.
I wasn’t left disappointed by any of the characters despite the fact that little was seen of Peter (nobody likes him anyway). His story-line is admittedly a bit of detour for Card in the book, and I didn’t begrudge the movie-makers for removing the scenes of he and Valentine taking over the world through online political debates and good writing. That part felt like a slight stretch both times I read Ender’s Game.
Even Bean was amazing in the movie, and his insult to Bernard during class (I can’t remember if it’s in the book or not) instantly endeared him to the whole theater.
Perhaps my imagination is careless, but I always thought the simulation battle scenes toward the end were hard to picture in writing. The imaging in the movie blew my mind. I’m glad I didn’t see it in 3D, but the loss of brain-cells might have been worth it for the experience. Ender’s Game always felt perfect to me. I loved and cared for the characters, and so I loved the book. But I never thought it could look that good and still avoid sacrificing the quality of such a story’s redeeming themes.
Such a glowing review is subject to scrutiny after a second watch on a smaller screen, but it’s not the size of the screen that makes Ender’s Game amazing. It’s Ender’s heart that’s as attractive and as tragic in the movie as it is in the book. I’d still recommend the book over the movie any day, but don’t think for a second that the Ender’s Game movie isn’t a great and rare film that’s much more than a Hollywood thrill ride.
In my very first post on this blog, I took issue with some of the roads that fiction/fantasy has wandered down and what I think some of the dangers were. C. S. Lewis sparked the metaphor of “watchful dragons” to challenge his society’s blindness to all things not fitting with their puritanical understanding of what is rational. Partially in defense of his own books – and of Christianity, which lay outside of his colleague’s rational minds – Lewis purposefully and ironically used a fantasy metaphor to attack the people that were so blinded by their rational way of thinking that they rejected the beauties of myths and miracles (two separate things).
I turned that metaphor on it’s head because the 21st century has produced its very own breed of beasts that have sprung from the human habit of over-correcting and pushing too far in the other direction. Now I want to bring the dragons boiling back out of the cave and challenge fantasy directly and specifically not because I want to start a fight, but because I think this needs to be said.
I’ve had my issues with the adult fantasy of today – the obsession with the mystical and the dark. Especially on Halloween, people just can’t seem to get enough occult to feel uncomfortable. Aside from that there’s the dragon of blood and glorified butchery which is an inter-media issue and doesn’t just rest in fantasy. I’ve also defended lots of fantasy, praising specific authors for their wisdom that is shown in their character’s heroism and the patience and care they show in their writing to produce redemption and values. These are very real themes in a realm of proposed escapism that has very real effects on our very real lives.
We don’t get to separate fiction/fantasy from our own moral lives by switching off our brains. What we love to read is connected to what we value, and I’m seeing a scary trend in what’s popular. Especially in teen fantasy today…
Look around a bookstore at the types of teen books that fly off the shelves like Halloween candy flies out of wrappers. We walk through a Barnes & Noble and laugh disparagingly at the entire section labeled “Paranormal Romance.” But if we take a closer look, is it really that funny? In a period of life where kids are reaching out to anything to discover who they are and who they want to be, they are reading books about already unrealistic romances pressed under even less realistic parameters. I’m not just talking about Twilight, which Steven King had the guts to throw under the bus. There are so many like Twilight that they had to…well, they had to make a new section for them all.
What do we value our teens reading? Gore-spattered pornography, apparently. There’s no other phrase for it. Teen fantasies have the same amount of violence and sex as adult fantasies, but for dumber reasons.
Do we really want our kids in their formative years reading Hunger Games in a country that suffers school shootings multiple times a year? What a fabulous idea to have kids murdering kids and an audience that cheers them on. It’s ok though! The good guys know it’s a bad thing. By the way, King wrote a book called The Running Man that was the exact same thing and about as bad…only it wasn’t kids getting cut up. (It also came out in 1985 followed by a vomit-inducing Arnold movie)
These are todays dark dragons, and they are the most popular books (and movies) in America. Teen fiction should not mean adult-themed, only less mature. It’s not an excuse for writers like Collins and Roth to get rich while they write poorly-written junk. The writing isn’t simpler to fit the audience. They just can’t write in the first place. It’s a shame there’s a niche for people like that.
I’m not saying all teen fiction fits that build. M. T. Anderson wrote a novel called Feed that will put all these other books in perspective. It’s purposely dumbed down writing to challenge the sordidly immature generation of teens in a future society that hauntingly mirrors our own. It’s as frightening and as close a dystopia as 1984 was in its time.
There needs to be some discernment in our consumption of media. The fantasies we choose to endorse are as prevalent as the realities because you can’t separate them from the human heart. Because it’s the values that span the gap between fantasy and reality. I’m not looking to make friends with this post. I’ve attacked the most popular novels of today, but I someone had to for the terrifying lies they present to an audience that might not be old enough to know better.
We can’t separate these stories from the world we live in now, but we glorify those same stories despite the fact that we don’t want them to become the world we live in now. Written in the costume of innocence, these books warp our values by not presenting the option of cheering for redemption and an end to violence in a child’s world. For those are the very things being lifted up.
Having to read my work aloud, even to someone close, makes me self-concious. It’s here — as the words are read to ears other than our own — that most of us question our writing’s adequacy.
I’ve been reading my manuscript (which I still refer to simply as Brisha) to someone at their request, and since we only have pieces of time here and there, I wonder about things like connectivity and plot complications, which lead to remarks on story arc and the strength of character development.
I ask openly if my audience of one is keeping track of everything and understanding characters, which only displays my self-concious attitude, because if she didn’t get what was happening, I would know that the shortcoming was mine and not hers.
But what about really complicated plots? Can I even describe the mood and conclusive themes I want readers or listeners will draw from my book without being too obvious? Sometimes I’m not sure I can describe them in full to myself, which could be a bad sign, but I suspect this is the case with many authors simply because we have a more complete and complicated picture in our heads. This picture is jumbled by drafts, links we’ve covered over, characters we’ve edited out, and other telltale and inevitable eraser marks of a sketch that only we (the author) can see.
To the mind of the author, the book he or she writes is much more full and complete than what get’s shown to the reader. Our worlds and characters can never be as complete or as flawed — full of switch-backed trails — to anyone so much as to us. The book that gets published is really just the backbone of the story; the story as it is to our imaginations is infinitely more.
So as the author, how do we stay on track? There are many ways and many facets, but let’s look at the most important point of a story: Character. More specifically, plot as it pertains to main characters.
How to track the trajectory of a character in a 650-page epic with a large cast? To keep me from jetting off course with a character, I’ve taken up Vladimir Nobokov’s famous quote as a motto:
“The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”
This has arguably been the thesis of “the novel” since The Odyssey. Anyone who’s read Game of Thrones is intimately aware of this plot design (George Martin throws very big rocks). But here is where writer and reader both keep tabs on the plot. With this quote in mind, we can almost graph the trajectory of our own plot. (That would be boring and stupid. Don’t do that).
My point is that a writer who doesn’t outline — which I think is a good idea for organic and inspired thoughts to flow — can easily get caught up in world, setting, atmosphere, style, any number of second tier novel-writing necessities, and lose the purposefulness. The drive.
I have and do. That’s why I worry my audience of one won’t be able to keep up. I’m concerned that I’ve laid out a labyrinth of a plot that’s actually too wild for anyone but myself to follow cleanly.
If I keep asking myself (and it’s a really fun question) “am I throwing rocks at my characters?” I can, in some ways, stay on track.
Why does this work?
Because at some point — author discretion on timing — that character is going to get hit. And when that character gets hit, he or she will either fall out of the tree or find a way to climb down to safety.
And that’s called story arc.
This past week I’ve been writing a lot more than usual. Sure, part of that is due to not taking five classes and only working part-time for now. Not my choice, but it does clean up some space for writing.
Time is money, but time is also productivity, and that doesn’t always mean cash.
And, aside from the extra time, a lot of that productivity is appearing in the form of reading. Reading has always been a heavy catalyst to productive writing. It’s not for nothing that authors’ advice to young writers always includes reading your eyes out of their sockets. Most writers love what they do because they love to get cozy with a book, but it’s never a fruitless reminder to be disciplined in making time for your favorite authors. Hey! Maybe authors just say that in hopes they’ll sell more books…how conspiratorial.
But they’re still basically right.
How can I be disciplined in making enough time to read and write both, you ask?
The first often leads to inspiration in the second. It’s in the books I read — and especially the ones I enjoy the most — where I find the highest doses of writing adrenaline. So, I’ve been writing a lot more than usual (not blogging as much as I should, sadly. But the story calls!), and I’m going to blame it partly on the reading I’ve been finding time for. Reading the right stuff this summer has gotten me stoked for writing.
For this reason, I’m going to add to the old authorial maxim: “Read everything you can get your hands on.”
…Actually, I won’t add to it. I’ll take issue with it…
Don’t read everything you can get your hands on!
Why? It’s a waste of time you really don’t have. Read only that which inspires you, or, at least, only that which you enjoy. Arguably, what you enjoy you are also inspired by, but I won’t quibble. I know this is hard, but don’t be afraid to close a book you don’t like. Don’t feel obligated to finish what you opened; if it’s poorly written it may only harm your writing energies, bog you down. We learn best from the people who are better than us.
Another practice I’ve taken up recently is to underline sentences or phrases I like. Regardless of the book I’m reading, if I like it (and if the book is mine) I’ll make note. If you recall my post a few months back on Earthsea, it was a post made up of quotes I loved from the book. I was just so excited about them. Not all books are that rich, but I frequently go back to books I’ve loved and reread my marks. That’s inspirational by itself.
Daniel Abraham’s Season series has been a particular inspiration to me this summer. Before starting each subsequent book, I returned to the one before it and read my underlined sections. It was like a “best of” rehash. Made me excited beyond all reason for the next book, and made me want to become a better author myself.
One more point I hope to be good, sensible wisdom. It may not be, but I’d advise making a point of reading outside of your chosen arena of writing. If you write fantasy, read non-fiction sometimes.
This takes us back to my old argument that fantasy should reflect our own world wisely and accurately. And learning about our own world not only keeps you sharp, but will add depth of thought and world to your fiction. If you write nonfiction, read fiction to develop a character-and-dialogue sense of writing that could add fathoms to your chosen journalism style.
So read lots. Just chose your reads carefully, and allow them to inspire you to new heights of writing brilliance. It may lead to getting more written even though you have less time.
Yesterday I bought The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson with the intention of reading it sometime in the next month or so.
I haven’t stared it yet, but there it sat on the edge of my desk, gloriously, almost mockingly, 1,253 pages long. This morning I brought it along to the library with me. It is to be a writing day since I don’t have work, and so Sanderson’s great tome will motivate me. It’s a little like staring at a picture of Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Universe days while doing push-ups. You try not to look at your own muscles, but it is motivating in a self-deprecating way.
Whatever works, I guess.
Now back to the story…
If my own writing growth is any indication, much of what we (or at least I) learn about writing is through reading. What I read shapes how I write, and that thought is worth a post in and of itself. Later.
One of the pieces I find most difficult to fit in writing is facial expressions and features. They’re slippery things. Most of my own descriptions either trip and fall flat on a particularly moody cliche, or leap too far and appear absurd and over eager.
But then again, as I pay attention to what I read, most authors have this problem with faces. Think about all the casual reminders of “faceness” that you read in books. Why do all bad guys have a scar over one eye, or some other deformity? (Ok, that’s sort of a tangent, but, seriously, scars are unhelpful tropes). And don’t even think about big huge burn marks. He’s a Batman villain.
And what about expressions? Have you ever seen someone narrow their eyes in anything but a theatrical, comic-strip manner? Have you caught someone turn “beet” red before? And what the hell does “she pursed her lips” really mean? I’ve only ever seen my grandmother do that, and that’s only because she’s trying to show me her grandmotherly right to be disappointed. (That disappointment is generally directed at my generation at large, I find, which I have unwittingly emulated. And so something as obvious as pursed lips may be appropriate).
In real life those sorts of expressions are mostly acts. Or a bad twitch. Unless you’re Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood is the only person in the world who can get a convincing eye-narrowing down.
If you’ve ever tried to form these expressions that authors plaster to their poor characters you’ll quickly realize that no one does that! They’re vulgar caricatures…then again, have you ever tried to describe a realistic mood-based expression without exaggeration? Almost impossible without enigmaticism.
Enigmaticism: It’s a new word. A noun for the art of describing the facial features and expressions of people with or without personal imitation.
Why is that?
It may be because people rarely have pure emotions that show up on their faces. She’s feeling a mixture of jealousy and anxiety, and in that case what she’s doing with her thumbs–the way she twists at them–is a better indication of how she feels than “she screwed up her lips in jealousy and anxiety.” In that scenario I have to tell you what she’s feeling.
Sure. What’s that look like again? I see faces all day, and if I have no idea what that is supposed to look like, it’s not helpful.
I think a greater part of this may have to do with a certain amount of pointlessness in describing faces. This obsolete nature is due to the habit of filling in the blanks. With something as profound and subtle (even these adjectives are almost useless) as a human face, we tend to see hazy familiarities regardless of what we’re told. A pudgy face becomes Uncle Henry no matter what else we hear about him. The bald guy with the scar on his ear remains inmate 126 from that CSI episode you saw last week despite the author’s insistence that baldy is a harmless professor. And that person’s ruby cheeks turn him into Santa Claus.
Part of this is probably due to subconscious, indeed unavoidable, profiling. When’s the last time you imagined an unspecified character in a different race than yours? Believe me, you’re not racist. It’s natural. Try it sometime though, it might change your outlook…or inlook, considering the subconscious.
The reader, to a degree knows of the author’s inability to paint with words precisely what a person looks like and manage to distinguish him or her from everyone else. So we fill things in, and that’s perfectly ok.
Glancing over my own characters for reassurance, I find that I have good outlines of physical features and attributes. But when it comes to imagining their faces specifically, my thoughts slide off of them like wet paint.
Some authors combat this anonymity by likening a character to a famous figure if their story has a present day setting. But “so-and-so looks uncannily like Harry Connick Jr.” only makes that character entirely indistinguishable from Harry Connick Jr. That’s a face, but if the reader knows enough about Connick Jr. then any unique characteristics are toast.
I guess that’s what movies have over books, but I think authors can (and many of them really do) come up with better ways to express people than what I’ve griped about. I even suggest that a certain amount of anonymity is helpful. You can’t give a reader everything, and maybe that’s part of how reading gives so much pleasure. The reader gets to invent along with the author. There’s a curious cooperation there.
And, just think, for every reader, there’s a different invention of image for people (and just about everything else). Maybe these thoughts will help me know what details are important to give and what can go unsaid in my own writing.