Book Review – Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati

Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brilliantly written masterpiece in every way! If you like historical fiction Into the Wilderness is a hallmark example of how to do it right. As a young man, the stories by James Fenimore Cooper captured my imagination, The Leatherstocking Tales: Deerslayer, Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder and more. They are set during the French and Indian War, in and around the New York frontier. The writing style can be a bit hard to get into since it is quite old, but the stories are excellent. Into the Wilderness starts a series of books by Sara Donati that follow the offspring of Hawkeye from the original stories and carries us through the decades following the war, through the War of 1812 up to the Battle of New Orleans. Donati has changed the surname of the family but the rest is true to the originals. However, the prose is light years beyond the originals. Continue reading “Book Review – Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati”

Review of Steel Victory by J. L. Gribble

J. L. Gribble has created a captivating alternate reality in her debut novel, full of magic and vampires and were-creatures. The story centers around a centuries old female vampire named Victory and her adopted family, and the city-state she’s cultivated as a safe zone between the British and Romans empires.
Victory has tried to step back in her control of the city politics, but as often happens, subversive elements creep in and try to undermine all she has accomplished. A new Roman Emperor also threatens to destroy the peace that has been established by treaty for decades.
But her family is not one to be trifled with. They all have military training and varying degrees of experience in the arts of war. A mercenary guild helps protect the city as well, with ties that go back to the birth of the city. But their little hamlet is no match for an entire legion from either the Brits or the Romans, so they must rely on savvy politics to keep their status as a free-state.
The characters are all singular, well-developed, and interesting. She uses strong female characters as the main points of view, while not a new thing, it does add flavor to the historical fantasy trope, especially Victory as a matriarch of the city-state and the anchor of the story.

Continue reading “Review of Steel Victory by J. L. Gribble”

Review of Life and Death by Stephenie Meyer

        Full disclosure, I’ve read all of the Twilight books, and The Host, and I enjoyed them all to varying degrees. I credit Stephenie Meyer with getting me to write. The thing I enjoy about her style of writing, say what you will, it is easy to read. I wanted to do something similar in my own writing. Everyone seems to have an opinion on her writing, and my friends reactions when I announced I was going to read this were all over the map.
        If you enjoyed Twilight you will likely enjoy Life and Death. Meyer flipped the genders of all the characters, except for the parents of the main character. The story is a re-imagining of the original book, and there are differences . . . some significant and some trivial, but I won’t put any spoilers in this piece.
        The bad stuff.

Continue reading “Review of Life and Death by Stephenie Meyer”

Book Review – Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Saving the Novel Writer, One Cat at a Time.

There doesn’t appear to be a consensus from my informal survey of Goodreads and blog sites on Save the Cat in most writing circles. Some would say it needs its own “save the cat” moment. Others are devoted to the teachings laid out within. I save the catfound it useful in several ways. A point in Blake Snyder’s favor is that he provides exercises at the end of each chapter and gives a lot of excellent examples.

 

Snyder opens strong with his logline concept. The idea of being able to sum up your story in one sentence has its appeal. It will make pitching your book all that much simpler, but it is certainly easier said than done. Blake’s construct is framed around having the “Big Idea” from the start. There is value in this, but his focus is on selling the script to a producer, not on helping frame the book. Continue reading “Book Review – Save the Cat by Blake Snyder”

Review – On Writing by Stephen King

This is from a paper I did for my MFA program.
Stephen King’s On Writing is more than just a book on how to write. It is a memoir and a journal about how he wrote several of his best sellers. It also showcases his keen eye for what makes a good story.
 
King is in the camp that believes writers are born, at various skill levels. A writer cannot be made of someone who is not born a “writer”. Mr. King does believe that the skill can be sharpened, thank goodness.
 
I found the memoir section engaging. I’m not sure why this surprised me. Each of these little vignettes was a little story of its own. Even though they were non-fiction, they were quite entertaining. He remembered things that had some aspect that was either jarring or gross. Elements that, no doubt, helped shape the direction his writing life would take. I definitely empathize with getting poison ivy in all the wrong places as a kid. I did notice, however, that even Stephen King uses passive voice when describing something, colorful and evocative though it may have been.

Continue reading “Review – On Writing by Stephen King”

Pimping a book: Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Wired for StoryWired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every writer should read this book. It has great insight into how the brain and the written word interface and the avenue is via story. Fantastic learning tool for writers of all ability levels.

I was turned on to Wired for Story through an interview Chuck Wendig did with Lisa Cron in July 2012 for his blog Terribleminds. She gave us her views on developing story. Lisa has a very fresh take on the importance of STORY and how it relates to the human brain. She is a producer for Showtime and Court TV, a writer, and also teaches a writing course at UCLA, but spent the last ten years researching the connection between neuroscience and how the brain relates to stories. It’s quite fascinating and illuminating, allowing us to learn techniques that will make our story click with the reader. They can’t help themselves, the brain is hard wired for receiving stories and if we can strike the right chord it will resonate within the readers mind. Continue reading “Pimping a book: Wired for Story by Lisa Cron”

Pimping a book: Lexicon by Max Barry

lexiconI just finished the audiobook version of Lexicon by Max Barry. It made my drive to Pennsylvania for the next residency in my MFA program a riveting adventure instead of drudgery.

I’ve been a Max Barry fan since he was Maxx Barry. I loved Jennifer Government, and I’ve made it a point to read every book he’s written. Max’s infectious, dark humor has always been a hallmark of his work, but the tone of Lexicon surprised me. It feels like an older, more mature brother of his other works. It’s a blisteringly brilliant book. I was a fan before this novel came out but this new book puts Max into a different tier.

Be careful…reading Lexicon will compromise you, turning you into one of his proselytes for this heart-stopping thriller. It’s a profoundly intelligent tale that covers a global conspiracy to use words as keys to unlock the human mind. Continue reading “Pimping a book: Lexicon by Max Barry”

Wired for Story

 

Chuck Wendig interviewed Lisa Cron this week for his blog Terribleminds and she gave us her take on developing story.  Another great find for interviews by Mr. Wendig, he rarely disappoints.  Lisa has a very fresh take on the importance of STORY and how it relates to the human brain.  She has a new book out called Wired for Story, and I can’t wait to read it.  She is a big time producer for Showtime and Court TV, a writer and also teaches a writing course at UCLA.  She has spent the last ten years researching the connection between neuroscience and how the brain relates to stories.  It’s quite fascinating and illuminating, allowing us to learn techniques that will make your story click with the reader.  They can’t help themselves, the brain is hard wired for receiving stories and if we can strike the right chord it will resonate within the readers mind.
            On Lisa’s blog she touched on why books that get panned by critiques can still sell at amazing rates.  It answers the question as to why books like 50 Shades of Gray can sell millions of books.  I remember picking up The Hunger Games, because my wife and daughter love it, and reading the first couple of pages and saying to myself, the prose just aren’t all that, but next thing I knew I was 100 pages in and couldn’t put it down.  Stephanie Myers Twilight books have been criticized for not having elaborate prose also, but the one thing all of these books have in common is they tell a great story and in a way that touches those chords in the mind.
            The concept has already had an impact on my writing.  I think it helped me frame the true story for my WIP.  CJ Cherryh had a recent rant on her facebook page (5 July) about the difference between plot and story and now that I have this new frame of reference I can see that she was saying basically the same thing.  The plot is not what drives the story.  The plot is just a tool to get the characters to create the story you are trying to tell.  The plot elements are moveable and malleable. 
When I deal with libraries and such, people who appreciate books, I often get asked questions about the creation of ‘plot’ — in the sense of the sort of book reports we used to have to give in school. These usually amounted to a recitation of what happened in the book. And these always confused heck out of me—I started writing at 10. I had been wrestling with ‘plot’ and ‘theme’ and this sort of thing on an intimate level for (at my young age) years, and the definitions of those terms that I had to memorize for tests just didn’t ring true with the way I did things. There was a wrongness in the basic assumptions that was bugging the life out of me.// Took me twenty years to figure what WAS bothering me—and to this day I really can’t define those terms, because they may shift with every type of book—but I came to a very basic conclusion: there IS no such thing as ‘plot’ in the sense most of these analyses deal with it. Plot is NOT the sequence of things that happen in the book. Those are the ‘things that happen in the book,’ and they actually are the most replaceable, ephemeral, rearrangeable things about the book. If you could lean over my shoulder while I work, you’d see me move things about, put events in different order, yank something I don’t want, put in something similar but ‘else’, and in sort, work with the causality and the chain of events, but these are not the plot. They are gears that need to mesh correctly, these are pieces that need to operate smoothly together—to PLAY OFF the ‘real Plot’ of the book, which is much more of a three-dimensional diagram of the lines of tension between the characters. You arrange events to tweak these lines of tension and cause a chain reaction, and figuring out how to do that may require you to change the events, change the people involved, change how the news travels, change the order of things—you see what I mean? The Real Plot is that 3-d constellation of characters and alliances and relationships, and these Actions are nothing but a set of triggers that could be ANY trigger. Finding the most logical order of triggers is head-work. Theme? I’m not sure what the hell that is. I think it’s the answer to that basic question a writer may want to write down on paper and pin to the wall above his desk: What’s this book about, anyway? And very often there’s no one word answer, or there is—say—like Loyalty; but that doesn’t say much. It takes the whole book to say what there is to say about that item, the way you see it, the way it affects the Real Plot, the feeling it generates. That’s why my teachers sometimes ticked me ‘wrong’ about certain answers, when I’d really thought long and hard about the answer and didn’t agree with the expected answer. That’s because when you start pushing those buttons on my personal console, you just may come up with a different book. Different answers. You may now realize that I’ve just answered that persistent groaner of a question “Where do you get your ideas?” —with the observation that ideas are no problem, so long as a writer has a pulse rate—but that Execution, ie, getting those ideas to assume a good constellation of tensions and then tweaking those lines of force to create a natural cascade of reactions leading to a satisfactory ending—that, THAT is the hard part.
                                                                                     –CJ Cherryh
 
Keeping STORY in the forefront of my mind as I revise the WIP is really helping me focus on the things that can stay and the things that need to go.   It also helped me refocus my Query letter.  I know what the essence of the book is about and was able to better articulate it. Here is the core of my new Query Letter:
 
What does an immortal bajillionaire have to complain about?  That’s what Remie La Jeunesse keeps reminding himself.  It’s how he’s managed to get by the least few decades, but he’s reached the end of the line.  He’s young by Nemesi standards, at 786, but he can’t find happiness anymore.  Weary of the death and despair he’s suffered for the last several centuries, Remie is ready to end his life, but he has one last obligation to fulfill.  He’s just received the call that the plan he’s spent 240 years meticulously planning is finally ready to trigger.  Will carrying out the plan be his demise or will it reignite his passions?
 
Anneliese Trahan is a damn good pilot and a rising star for Nobloquy, the military arm of Nollevelle Corporation.  Her career path seemed to be on the fast track after leaving the comfort and security of her family trade ship, but the intervention of a past lover derails her plans and puts her on a collision course with a man determined to destroy Nollevelle and any chance at a captaincy.  Will she be the one to end his life or save his soul?
At any rate, I ordered Wired for Story and should have it by the end of the week.  I’m maybe a 5th of the way through my 3rd rewrite and hopefully it will be ready for submission soon.
Clear Ether!

Impacted by Concept – The Quantum Thief

This is not really intended to be a book review, but more the impact the book is having on me as a writer.  I’m reading a book by Hannu Rajaniemi called The Quantum Thief.  It’s his first novel and I have to say that I’m extremely impressed.  He runs a think-tank in Scotland and has a PhD in String Theory — big brain on this guy.  The stuff in his novel is an absolutely fantastic extrapolation of social media and the internet into the far future and it’s stunning.  I read an editorial piece yesterday by Bruce Sterling (Beyond the Beyond) in the newest issue of ARC talking about Futurists and the art of predicting and how it’s not realistic to expect anyone to get it right, but sometimes the story tellers hit on the right chord.  I think Mr. Rajaniemi is not just striking the right chord, but making a symphony.  BTW, he also has a short story in the same edition of ARC.

I’ll be honest; I had a really hard time getting through the first chapter.  It is full of imagery and language that’s alien to a present-day human being, even one that is relatively tech savvy and speaks most of the jargon of current SciFi.  It took me several read throughs to wrap my head around some of his constructs, but once I was acclimated the ride really took off.  The story centers on several characters and they are all rich and well-developed and interesting.  The landscape switches regularly from Mars to deep space and elsewhere, and the underlying science is well conceived, if poorly described, and I am barely hanging on by the tips of my fingers trying to keep up with it.  It touches on the ramifications of immortality or the illusion of immortality and what is really real.  The underpinning story is fantastical, but merely lays bedrock to present a smorgasbord of amazing concepts.   Someone needs something stolen and they need the best thief that has ever lived to pull it off, it’s just that he is not quite himself …yet.

One of the reviews I read put it succinctly, “It is flamboyantly intelligent, wildly intricate and clearly imaginative in ten thousand ways that I will never fully be able to appreciate.”  Bang on.  At some point I gave up worrying if I was ever going to completely understand the various devices he uses and just went with the flow and enjoyed the scenery, even though at times I didn’t understand what I was looking at.  The thing that really strikes me is how jealous I am.  I am so pedestrian in my plotting and use of language by comparison that I’m almost ashamed of my story.  Granted, they are in completely different vanes, but the ideas and richness of the tapestry he’s woven are so far beyond anything I’ve been able to imagine it’s just enthralling, the way watching a train wreck is enthralling.  You can’t turn your head away.  I’m not saying his story is a train wreck.  I’m saying that me reading it feels like I’m on the train and I will never be as good as he is at this writing thing.  It’s a thing that will be forever just out of my grasp, even though I can see it clearly for how lovely it is.

I have a decent vocabulary, but I don’t want to speak down to people, and I don’t want to even give the impression that I think I know more than you do.  When I was a younger man I spoke differently than my peers and they made fun.  I figured out pretty quickly that it wasn’t necessary, and in fact was counter-productive, to show off the new words I learned.  I’m wondering if that has influenced my thought patterns to the point that I am making myself dumber somehow.

I don’t feel like I am on the same plane of existence as some of these brilliant minds.  It makes me sad, not sad like someone died, but more for the loss of something I never had.  I really want deep down in my soul to be a brilliant science fiction writer, but I also know that my colander brain can barely hold a thought.  It’s more like I get glimpses of the fragments as they fall through the cracks and I have to piece the puzzle together.   I still end up with a few pieces missing and have to do my best with what’s left over.  It’s extremely difficult to conceive of things that are new and breathtaking, but my mind does seem to be proficient at recognizing it when it sees it, when other people do it.

Getting back to the story, there are some flaws in his writing style.  Flaws seems like too harsh a word, but for me, assuming I could come up with the ideas he has, the writing is a little too distant and even though his concepts are outlandish and almost incomprehensible, I would have tried a little harder to make them easier for the everyman to understand.  Would that have diminished them somehow?  I’m undecided, but I do know it was a struggle to get through this book in spots, and I’ve learned that things that slow down the reader, not the story, but the reader, are bad juju.  I’ve read critiques that lambast some of the great conceptualists as weak when it comes to the mechanics of proper story engineering.  The truly great ones manage to do both.   The jury is still out for me if Mr. Rajaniemi is going to fall into that category, but it is a damn fine debut novel.  Even being considered as a great debut puts him in fine company, company most aspiring authors would love to be in.  It has inspired me to try even harder to get my stories right.  I have a far, far future story in the works and it is obvious I have left a lot of stones unturned.

Clear Ether!

Pimping a book: Gabriel’s Return

Do you like Science Fiction?  If you do, you will love the new series by Steve Umstead.  I read a review comparing Evan Gabriel with Snake Plissken and it is on the mark.  Think Snake Plissken on Mars, subtract the cheese, add a dollop of interstellar intrigue and pulse rifles and you have the world of Commander Evan Gabriel.

This is a new thing for me, I’ve only done a few book reviews in my time, but when I heard that Steve was releasing his second book and looking for a little help generating some interest I jumped in with both feet.  Hope you don’t mind if I wax eloquently on his new release.  No fancy bells or whistles here, just old-fashioned word of mouth.

I met Steve on twitter about a year ago and he was still working on his first release, Gabriel’s Redemption, and I immediately liked him.  When his book was published I bought it knowing full-well that it was self-published and wanted to throw him a bone, but it was extremely well-crafted, WITHOUT a lot of the pitfalls you hear about in the DIY format.  But that wasn’t all, the story moved fast and even though the protagonist is a grim man, it captured my attention from the word go.  I absolutely love his “Neuretics”, they are one of the cooler concepts I’ve read in quite a while.  Frankly, I’d love to steal this concept for my novel.  His near future world is extremely believable and his projected technology works like a charm.  Neuretics are a form of integrated brain-slash-nervous system-slash-secure internet-slash-radio tech that thoroughly rocks my world!  In Gabriel’s Return we find Commander Evan Gabriel in a happier place, and with a love interest.  I have to say the new life suits him well, even if he’s not entirely comfortable with it.  The second book is so often a letdown, but in this case it is an upgrade to the original.  Steve is getting better as a writer and it shows.   This Clancyesque story line takes us across the galaxy, but the stakes are more personal and more meaningful, ultimately creating a much more satisfying story.  I honestly can’t wait for the third book!

There is a great deal of discussion on the interwebs about traditional publishing vs. self-publishing and I for one haven’t decided which way I’m going to go, but Mr. Umstead is showing us how it’s done on the self-publishing side.  These books do not have typos or grammatical issues or discontinuities.  He has done his research and obviously has a very good editor.  I think Steve could go traditional with this series and I haven’t asked him why he didn’t, but I can tell you he is pumping them out very quickly now — all three in this trilogy within the same calendar year.  I’m guessing that has something to do with it.

 

The first two books are out now, the first available in soft cover or eBook, and the second only available on eBook currently with the 3rd novel in the trilogy coming out before Christmas!  He is shooting for a 1 December release.

I’m not going to go into detail on the plot, there are plenty of reviews on Amazon if you care to read them, in fact you can read the first three chapters for free here.  Stop by #pubwrite on twitter and say hello to the mayor, Steve Umstead himself.  I put my money where my mouth is, and it was well-spent.

Well done, sir!