Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

In Fact It’s a Gas!

Posted by midiguru on November 12, 2015

The other day I started thinking it might be fun to write a steampunk novel. Steampunk, for those who are standing out on the sidewalk with their noses pressed against the glass, is a sub-genre of science fiction. The typical setting for steampunk is Victorian England, and typically a story is tricked out with fantastic clockwork gadgets and gigantic machinery. Electronics are strictly forbidden. There’s not much punk in steampunk, but there’s a lot of steam.

The collection of steampunk at my local library is spotty, but not too bad. I grabbed a stack of books and started doing a little market research. A persistent thread running through many of these books, I discovered, is the airship. It’s not hard to see why. The airship is charmingly retro, it’s impressively large, and it moves in a slow, dreamy, dignified way. The dirigible is a perfect icon for steampunk.

So I started doing a little research on lighter-than-air flying craft.

My curse as a writer is that I like things to make sense. I don’t care much for ideas that defy the laws of physics. I’ve written stories about elves, and unicorns, and ghosts, but those are just magic premises suitable for fantasy. Once you have a race of elves, they’re subject to the laws of physics just like everything else.

What I quickly discovered is that there’s a reason why, in our own world, blimps and dirigibles are not widely used as aircraft. They’re just not very practical.

For a lifting agent, you have three choices — hydrogen, helium, or hot air. Hydrogen provides the best lift, and it’s cheap and readily available, but it’s also very dangerous, because it’s highly flammable. Given the slightest provocation, a big bag of hydrogen has a tendency to burst into flame.

Helium is not quite as good a lifting agent, but it’s pretty good. It’s also scarce and expensive. Those party balloons you just bought at the store really ought to be illegal, because helium is useful stuff, and we have no way to manufacture any more. When the Earth’s supply of helium is gone, it’s gone.

Hot air is cheap and safe, but it’s a less efficient lifting agent. Because it’s less efficient, your gondola (the thing hanging under the gas bag) can’t carry as much. The gondola has to carry fuel for the burner that provides the hot air, of course. If you also want some kind of propeller, so as to control what direction you’re flying, that’s going to take fuel too. And then there’s the crew, the weight of the gondola itself, and the sandbags that you’re carrying for ballast so you can cut them loose if you need more altitude in a hurry. In the end, you won’t be able to carry much in the way of freight or passengers. Hot air balloons are fine for a spectacular ride at the state fair, but they’re just not a good method of transportation.

As a writer of steampunk, you’re faced with a few stark choices. You can ignore all this nitpicking — just go ahead and write about ironclad airships with mounted cannon, and trust that your readers will be so thrilled they won’t know or won’t care. You can invent a new type of safe hydrogen, though that violates the laws of physics. Or you can dispense with airships altogether and make do with steamships and railroad trains.

Personally, I lean toward option 3. The trouble is, readers of steampunk want to be thrilled. They want to discover visionary wonders of Victorian technology! A steampunk novel with no mechanical marvels is certainly possible in a literary sense, but it would be at a disadvantage in the rough-and-tumble book publishing market.

Still chewin’ on this dilemma. Not sure what I’ll end up with.

Posted in fiction, science fiction, writing | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

More About Learning More

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2015

I dropped out of college in the Sixties. Long story, and not likely to interest anybody, outside of a small circle of friends. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about returning to college to finally get a degree or two. Trying to find an option that actually makes sense turns out to be a bit of a treasure hunt.

Because I’m a musician, it’s natural to think majoring in music would be the right move. Specifically, as I’m an expert in synthesizers and music software, maybe a music degree with a specialization in electronic music.

I found a school back east that has a terrific program in that area — Bard College. I know I’d love being a student at Bard, but there are several not-so-delightful factors to weigh. First, it’s fearfully expensive. We’re talking $50,000 per year, and I’m still a lowly sophomore. That works out to about $6,000 per undergraduate class per semester. Ouch! Then there are the East Coast winters. I’m an old guy, and it’s not clear how well I would handle blizzards. On top of which, it’s a one-way ticket. If I sell my house in California, move back to upstate New York, and buy a house there, I’ll get enough cash out of the deal to pay the tuition — but I’ll be priced out of the California real estate market, so if the winters prove too severe for me, I’m stuck.

How about a music degree from a school near where I live? Well, there’s UC Berkeley. I’m pretty sure they would have to readmit me, because I left in good standing in 1968. But they have no undergraduate electronic music specialization — their music department is entirely performance-oriented. So I’d have to play cello in their orchestra. The orchestra rehearses two nights every week, for 2-1/2 hours a night, and get this — it’s a one-unit class. Five hours of rehearsal, plus all of the hours of practice needed to learn the parts, and you get one lousy unit of credit. Factor in the grotesque process of commuting from Livermore to Berkeley — can’t take BART, because it’s too long a walk uphill from the Berkeley BART station to the music building if you’re over 65 and carrying a cello. So I’d have to drive and deal with the inadequate parking facilities. Not a swell idea.

San Jose State has a nice electronic music curriculum, but here we hit another snag. I was a full-time student at Cal State East Bay for one quarter in 2004, but I’m still a sophomore, and SJ State is not currently accepting lower-division transfer students from the other state universities. I’d have to go back to CSEB for a semester or two and then apply for a transfer. The commute to CSEB is merely bad, not horrendous, and they have capacious parking lots! But no electronic music, of course. Parking at SJSU sucks, and it’s at least as long a commute as Berkeley — a full hour each way on the freeway, basically. For years. Makes me want to drop out, just thinking about it.

How about an online degree program, then? Getting an undergraduate music degree online is all but impossible, because of the performance requirements — a senior recital and all that. I did find one school, Valley City State in North Dakota, that offers an accredited online-only music degree. You take lessons and play in an ensemble in your local area and document it for their faculty to evaluate. But, whoops! They have no string faculty, so you can’t do their online degree if your major instrument is cello.

So maybe a degree in music is a bad idea. Maybe I should major in English, with an emphasis in writing fiction. No performance requirements to sweat over, no lugging a cello around on campus, this could work. Or how about an online degree in English? Could be a winner!

Judging by their own website, Southern New Hampshire University looks good. It’s accredited, affordable, and has an online-only fiction writing degree. But after a quick trip to Yelp, I had to cross SNHU off my list. Although it’s a non-profit, not a for-profit diploma mill like some other online schools, it appears their sales force is very aggressive, their teachers underpaid and forced to adhere to a cookie-cutter curriculum, and their responsiveness to administrative foul-ups deplorable. Some people seem to like SNHU, but it got a lot of one-star reviews.

Right now I’m thinking, maybe an English degree from UC. I could take BART to campus, the cost would be manageable, and I wouldn’t have to sell my house and move to a new town where I know nobody in order to enroll. The English Department seems to have a creative writing specialization, but the course offerings in fiction writing may be a bit skimpy. A cursory reading of the degree requirements suggests that I might have to take a couple of courses in either poetry (ugh) or script-writing (yawn).

Maybe I could troll the poetry-writing class by turning in some of my refrigerator magnet poems. Here’s my latest:

She will shake two easy dreams

and smile at every velvet hand.

In the rain you must trust a window,

but do not lust after the ferocious breeze;

the weak black picture is essential.

She will stop the clouds of time

and voice the power of true honey

as we blaze together,

lick the rhythms of yesterday,

and whisper about our feet.

Do you think they’d believe me if I told them that’s a love poem?

Posted in fiction, society & culture | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

When Bad Things Happen to Good Novels

Posted by midiguru on September 18, 2015

I’ve written two (unpublished) historical novels, one set in Chicago in 1885 and the other in Italy in the early days of the Roman Empire (in 59 A.D.). I love doing historical research … and I also love getting the details right. You can never get everything right, because historians don’t tend to serve up the kind of detail that a fiction writer needs. But at least the writer can strive not to get anything wrong.

Recently I sat down to do a little tidying up on my Rome novel, with the idea of probably self-publishing it and selling six or eight copies. It’s a murder mystery (as is the Chicago book), so naturally I need to know a lot about how the Roman legal system worked. I tracked down an expert in Roman law at the University of Michigan, and he suggested I read The Criminal Law in Ancient Rome by O. F. Robinson. I promptly bought a copy and started underlining salient passages.

My story has a love sub-plot. The widow of the murdered man is in the process of falling in love with a handsome young slave in her father’s household, and of course he ultimately solves the crime, thereby freeing her from the false accusation, so now nature can take its course.

The details of how they become romantically involved are a bit convoluted. The budding of the romance rests, oddly enough, on the nature of her murdered husband’s will, because the disposition of the estate depends on whether his widow is pregnant. She isn’t, but she decides to pretend to be, so now she needs a surreptitious surrogate father.

And this is where the fecal substance encounters the rotating air circulation device. Here is the key passage from Chapter 4 of Robinson’s book: “…all the slaves in the house at the time of the suspicious death were to be tortured in order to find out the murderer, to discover if anyone had incited him, and to make it possible to punish for their failure in their duty all those slaves who had not prevented the murder — for which they were all liable to be put to death…. Until this [the torturing] had been done the dead man’s will was not to be opened…. While the torture was technically interrogation, not punishment, the two concepts were not always clearly distinguished; the whole purpose of the law was to compel slaves to guard their owners both from members of the household and [from] outsiders at the risk of their own lives….” An addition to the law (probably enacted at about the time of my story) “extended the rule so that all the slaves of the surviving spouse would also be tortured.”

Oh, dear. My love sub-plot can’t get under way until after a dozen or so household slaves have been tortured. But I don’t want to write a description of slaves being whipped or subjected to thumbscrews or whatever the Romans liked to do. And I’m pretty sure my six or eight readers would find that chapter and its aftermath unpleasant, if not worse.

I knew that the slaves would be tortured if they were suspected of the murder, but this passage suggests that the tortureĀ  could and probably did happen even if they weren’t directly suspected — and in my story, one of them is suspected, because it’s a murder mystery, so I need suspects! But worse, the whole love sub-plot just got breached below the water line and sank to the bottom of the harbor. It can’t get under way until after the torture, because the torture has to happen before the victim’s will is unsealed and read.

I love historical research. I hate historical research.

This is the advantage of writing fantasy novels set on other worlds. Nobody can fact-check you. You can shape the story rather more easily, because you’re not constrained by reality.

Now if only the agent who has my fantasy novel sitting on her desk would get back to me….

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »


Posted by midiguru on August 20, 2015

I love reading mysteries. Lately I’ve been on an Agatha Christie jag — bought many of the titles that were not already in my collection.

Her approach to plot is somewhat formulaic, though there are often surprising twists. (That’s part of the formula.) The murderer is usually the person you least suspect. Even if you try to guess based on knowing that’s what she’s going to do, you’ll still guess wrong.

The difficulty with this kind of writing is that in real life, most murders are not very interesting. In order to keep the reader guessing and the police baffled, the author generally has to come up with a truly far-fetched scenario. Sometimes the scenario, when the details are eventually revealed in the last five pages, makes sense. Often, however, it doesn’t withstand even casual scrutiny.

Crooked HouseĀ is one of Christie’s best. The murderer is, as usual, the person you least suspect, but at least the murderer’s psychology and methods make sense.

On the other side of the coin, we have What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw. If you plan to read it, you should proceed no further. Spoilers follow.

Still here? Okay. Leaving aside, for the moment, the business of what Mrs. McGillicuddy saw — it was entirely coincidence, and not part of the murderer’s plans — here’s what the murderer thinks and does. He is estranged from his wife, who is Catholic and won’t divorce him. He wants to marry another woman, who is destined to inherit, sooner or later, a pile of money. In order to avoid bigamy, he decides to murder his wife. This is morally repugnant, but it’s an entirely sensible basis for a mystery plot.

There are any number of ways in which he could accomplish his nefarious ends. He could stab her and bury her in the basement. He could invite her for a weekend at the seaside and push her over a cliff. He could send her a box of poisoned chocolates. But no. He invites her on a short train trip (outward from London) in the direction of his home. He then strangles her on the train and tosses the body out of the railroad car. They’re traveling in a first-class no-corridor coach, so there’s no one to see what he has done.

Mrs. McGillicuddy, however, happens to be looking out the window of a train traveling on a parallel track at nearly the same speed, and she sees the murder committed. She duly reports the crime to the police … but no body is found. Her tale is dismissed by everyone except her friend Jane Marple.

But enough of that. We were talking about the murderer. He has cleverly tossed his wife’s body from the train at a point where it will roll down an embankment onto the country estate where his lady friend lives. He then calmly disembarks at the station and travels back (it is now late at night) to the country estate to dispose of the body. How does he do this? He can’t very well bury it, as there’s a gardener, who would certainly notice a fresh excavation. Ah, but there are quite a lot of ancient, run-down outbuildings on the estate, some of them filled with odd bits of junk. In one barn is a Roman sarcophagus that one of the ancestors brought home from Europe. So the murderer drags or carries the body of his deceased wife into the barn, deposits it in the sarcophagus, puts the heavy lid back on the sarcophagus, and goes home. Mission accomplished.

Of course, Miss Marple’s clever young assistant will eventually find the body. But the murderer has no expectation that that will happen at all — nor, if it is found, how soon that will happen. What if it’s found within days, and can be identified by circulating a photograph, or through fingerprints? (The story takes place in 1957. No DNA.) In that case, the murderer will have some explainin’ to do. Like, how did your wife’s body end up on your lady friend’s property? That’s not the kind of question for which a murderer is likely to have a pat answer.

In fact, his lady friend doesn’t know he has ever been married. If the body is discovered and identified, his romantic plans will go up the spout even if the police can’t prove he murdered her. Yes, this qualifies as poor planning. Nothing in the book suggests that he is impulsive or overly optimistic. He’s a country doctor, not a used car salesman.

Presumably, he intends the sarcophagus to be a permanent, undiscovered resting place for the corpse, though it’s not a very reliable one. He does, however, take precautionary steps. He concocts a fake trail of evidence suggesting that the murdered woman (whose corpse has not yet, at this point, been found, and as far as he knows may never be found) was somebody else entirely. This red herring, which of course fools the reader and also Miss Marple for many pages, directs suspicion at members of the family that owns the country estate. One of whom is his lady friend. But suspicion of what? As far as he knows, nobody even suspects that there has been a murder.

Already his actions are seeming very counter-productive. Rather than dispose of his wife in a sensible way, he has gone far out of his way to involve his lady friend … because, of course, if he didn’t do that, Mrs. Christie wouldn’t have a story to tell. But wait — it’s about to get worse. Much worse.

The provisions of the will and trust under which his lady friend will inherit are, as often happens in Christie’s novels, convoluted. Father (who is elderly and cantankerous) has the estate only in trust, from his father. When he dies, the estate will be divided among his six children, two of whom died years ago. One of the surviving children being, of course, the murderer’s lady friend. But the murderer is not content to expect that his wife-to-be will inherit one fourth of this handsome estate. He wants more. (Why does he want more? Don’t ask.) So he sets out to murder her brothers. The idea is, he has to murder the brothers first, because if they’re still alive when the father dies, the estate will be divided amongst them.

So what does he do? He puts arsenic in the cocktail shaker, of course — at a family dinner party where he is conveniently not present, a detail that I don’t think Christie ever clears up. Everybody gets sick, but only one of the brothers dies. Naturally, suspicion is thrown on the other members of the family. That’s Christie’s plot. But look at it from the murderer’s point of view: One of the people who will drink the poisoned cocktails is his lady friend! If she dies of the arsenic, his whole plan goes belly-up. And if the father is the one who dies, the murderer’s hope of increasing the size of his lady friend’s inheritance will go belly-up. He will have undermined his own grandiose hopes.

This is the fatal flaw in murder mystery plotting. In order to make a good mystery, you need the murderer to act like a total yutz.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Summer Squash

Posted by midiguru on July 4, 2015

I enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay’s two-volume Sarantine Mosaic, and I enjoyed his Ysabel, so I figured I’d have a fling at his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Ordered the books from Amazon. Started book 1, The Summer Tree.

Within a few pages, I had realized this must be his first novel. The first-novelness of it fairly leaps off the page. I also had a dim memory of having read the opening at some point in the distant past and having decided not to bother going further. This time, having bought the books, I’m forcing myself to slog through at least a couple of hundred pages.

The premise of the opening is that a wizard from the parallel world of Fionavar shows up in Toronto. He invites five college students to accompany him back to his home world, for reasons that he is rather vague about. And of course they accept the invitation. Not eagerly, but with only the barest of misgivings. And without packing suitcases.

When they arrive in Fionavar, they’re instantly plunged into a maelstrom of courtly intrigue. It’s a stock Medieval fantasy world, pretty much. Swords and longbows and a palace with a wastrel prince and an aged king who is surrounded by duplicitous counselors. Oh, and an ancient evil entity imprisoned by being buried under a mountain. You just know the evil entity is going to get loose before long, if he isn’t loose already. So that’s the story setup.

The first problem is that the two young women and three young men from our own world are not clearly differentiated from one another in the opening. Kimberly, Jennifer, Paul, Kevin, and Dave sort of share the spotlight. A better way to handle this type of situation narratively, rather than shuttling back and forth, is to use a single viewpoint character and share his or her views of the others.

The second problem is that the young people are singularly credulous. After one evening’s acquaintance, they hop into the magic circle with the wizard from Fionavar, and off they go. When they arrive at the palace, again they seem content to bumble along, asking few questions in spite of the deep tensions that are immediately apparent, and seeming almost unfazed by the fact that their entire lives have just been turned upside down. One of them has evidently suffered some emotional trauma (still unexplained after the first 75 pages) in the recent past, but emotional depth is not a prominent feature of the narrative.

It seems very possible that they were swept up into this seemingly impromptu expedition for reasons to do with Fate, or hidden magical facets of their personalities, or something of the sort. But really, that’s just the young author playing fast and loose. He wants to toss some modern people into a Medieval epic, so there they are, and because he wants them there and they’re his puppets, they’re not shocked or bewildered, they’re just having an adventure.

The fact that the natives of Fionavar speak English? None of the characters seems to have noticed how odd this is. The king also plays chess, and by the same rules that are used in Europe, which is really as profoundly weird as the linguistic coincidence, because chess was invented in India and underwent various developments over the course of a thousand years or so. It’s still played in somewhat different forms in Japan, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere — so how does the king in far Fionavar happen to be familiar with the European rules?

The third problem is the fantasy premise itself. Fionavar is replete with magic — strange beings, glowing crystals, jealous priestesses, magic bracelets, a Seer, a wolf who is there and then not there. But between that mishmash and the standard literary furniture of a Medieval epic, there’s not, as yet, much promise of originality or depth.

The fourth problem is what we might call the Celtic kitchen sink. Several pages are studded with foreign names, none of which are clearly explained to the reader. It’s as if Kay is expecting, or hoping, to dazzle the reader with epic breadth without bothering to nail anything down the way he ought to. Starting on page 1 (and omitting the names of onstage characters), we have Ginserat, Cathal, Eridu, Revor, Dalrei, Colan, Conary, Paras Derval, the lios affar, Ra-Termaine, Daniloth … and that’s all on page 1. Then Rakoth Maugrim, Seresh, the Summer Tree, the svart affar, and later on, in another saga-flavored info-dump, Rhoden, Saeren, Taerlindel, the River Glein, the Latham, Leinen, Gwen Ystrat, Dun Maura, Brennin, Mornir (with an umlaut over the o, if you please), Delevan, Cathal … is your head spinning? Mine is.

I’m not giving up quite yet. I’ll give him another hundred pages, but as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, Kay has some ‘splainin’ to do.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Call Me a Snob If You Like, but…

Posted by midiguru on June 13, 2015

Should I return to college as an English major? Maybe not.

Yesterday I took a look at the courses English majors are required to take at UC Berkeley. Reading lists are provided with the course listings. One of the courses (English 45B, which covers the 18th and early 19th centuries) puts Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the very top of the list. Possibly because it’s an alphabetical list, though a few items are out of order. So I thought, hey, I’ve never read it. I’ll give it a try. This will give me some good information about whether I would enjoy being an English major.

Pride and Prejudice is amazingly, mind-numbingly boring. It is an absolute crock. I’ve only read about a quarter of it, but no inducement on Earth would persuade me to go on. The novel concerns itself entirely with the marriage prospects of idle rich girls. Everyone in the book is rich. They have servants. There is, from time to time, a passing mention of a cook or footman, but the servants have neither faces nor names.

What’s worse, the characters in the novel have no interests whatever, other than gossiping, idle chitchat, and dissecting one another’s manners. Were world events unfolding in the years around 1810? Certainly. (The novel was published in 1813.) In 1810 Napoleon married Marie Louise, his second wife. Napoleon was the self-declared emperor of France, a nation quite near England. Also in 1810, he annexed Holland. In 1812, of course, the British army soundly defeated the upstart United States and burnt the capital of the U.S. to the ground.

Ah, but Elizabeth is concerned only with Mr. Darcy. The fact that the cook’s husband is ill, or that Napoleon has annexed Holland — these things concern her not for a moment. In Austen’s austere world view, nothing exists but rich people and their social encounters.

When the English department at UC replaces Jane Austen with Terry Pratchett, call me. I mean this quite seriously. Pratchett was a humorist, but his novels have far more meat on their bones than Pride and Prejudice. They have poor people. They have people taking huge risks and nearly getting killed (or more than nearly). They have recognizable literary themes. They have insight into human nature.

Or maybe Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Yeah, call me when you add that course to the syllabus.

Posted in fiction | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Those Who Can’t (or Don’t) Teach

Posted by midiguru on June 12, 2015

As a retired single guy who dropped out of college in 1969, I have a recurring fantasy of going back to get a degree or two. Not strictly for my own satisfaction or to fill the idle hours (though those are considerations) but because, degree in hand, I could teach electronic music at one or two nearby colleges.

It wouldn’t have to be a music degree; pretty much any accredited degree would do. There’s clearly a crying need for instruction in music technology, a need that I could easily fill if only I had that piece of paper saying I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.

My impression is that UC Berkeley pretty much has to let me in as a returning undergraduate, since I left in good standing. Their music department is a good one, but I’m dissuaded from the idea of majoring in music by the performance requirement. Their symphony rehearses on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7:30 to 10:00 (after which I would have to drive home to Livermore), but I already have a Tuesday evening commitment to the local community orchestra. Oh, and orchestra is a 1-unit class. Five hours a week, to say nothing of the woodshedding, and they give you one lousy unit for it? Excuse me.

In any event, I hardly need experience performing. At the age of 25 I was gigging five nights a week.

Last night’s brainstorm was, why major in music at all? Why not major in English? After all, I’m a professional writer and an avid (though not very selective) reader. So this morning I had a look at the UC Berkeley English department.

The courses look very good indeed. I mean, it’s not my life’s ambition to read Moby Dick, but I’m sure I’d learn a lot.

What I found a bit discouraging, or at least disconcerting, is that almost none of the instructors in the English department is a novelist. Among those who list the novel as their specialty, not a single one lists a novel among his or her published books. Lots of scholarly criticism, but no actual (cough-cough) novels. Among the 12 instructors who list creative writing as their specialty, there are, by my count, three novelists. Mostly it’s poetry, poetry, and more poetry.

You’d think an English department would have a few novelists on staff. Or at least, I’d think that.

Here’s an evil thought. Though I wrote some poetry in my callow youth (a youth so long ago I’d have to look up the word “callow” to learn what it means), I long ago desisted. The only poetry I write now is, quite literally, refrigerator magnet poetry. On my refrigerator are a couple of hundred substantives (nouns, adjectives, and verbs) and a bunch of connecting elements (suffixes, pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions). From time to time I assemble a wickedly surrealist poem in free verse. I jot them all down in a notebook that sits atop the microwave. So now I’m wondering … if I whipped out a dozen of those refrigerator magnet poems and edited or expanded them so that they appear to have some semblance of actual meaning, and then submitted them as original work in a creative writing class, could I fool a UC Berkeley poetry professor into thinking I was a real poet?

It’s almost worth enrolling at UC just to find out.

Posted in fiction | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

A Cornucopia of Dreams

Posted by midiguru on March 9, 2015

Had an hour to kill today, over in Pleasanton, between doctor appointments, so I drove up to Dublin and wandered around in Barnes & Noble. Amazon is convenient, but I still love browsing in a real bookstore!

The mass quantities of fantasy novels (both adult and YA) I found simultaneously depressing and inspiring. There’s so much out there! Beautiful covers, bold concepts, fat five-volume epics by authors I’ve never heard of. Depressing mainly because of the avalanche of competition. I’m working on a fantasy epic of my own, and right now the prospect of finding a place for it on one of those shelves feels like lifting a ten-ton weight. Inspiring because I want to buy and read all of them!

Eragon, for instance. Years ago I tried the first book and decided it was tripe. By now I don’t remember why I thought that. But (a) it’s very successful, so Paolini must be doing something right, (b) maybe I was being too judgmental, and (c) peeking into it, the prose style seems not bad at all. So maybe I should give it a second chance.

I splurged and bought all five volumes of Michael Scott’s Alchemyst series. Could have bought the first volume to check it out, but it’s a matched set. My copy of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has a different size and cover art for the 3rd volume, because I bought it later. Matched sets are lovely.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Professional Courtesies

Posted by midiguru on March 5, 2015

For complicated reasons, I’m ramping up my involvement with fiction writing. Specifically, fantasy fiction. As part of the process, I’m resolving to read successful books by other authors.

This creates a bit of a moral conundrum. I know a few people enjoy reading my blog posts about writing. I’m learning all sorts of things about the fantasy field through my reading — some subtle things, some not so subtle. But I need to be very discreet about sharing my observations.

These other writers aren’t just “the competition.” They’re my colleagues. If (when!) my own work is published, I may run into some of them at conventions. How will that encounter go, if I have savagely trashed their masterpiece in my blog?

My basic approach, since the world of books is huge and my patience is limited, is to read the first 100 pages of a novel. At that point I feel qualified to draw some conclusions about what the author is up to. Yes, the story may take an unexpected turn on page 150, but if the author hasn’t hinted about it by page 100, that in itself is a defect.

In the last few days I’ve delved into two different novels in this manner. One has no plot at all, and the other has too much plot. And there’s almost no way to explain what I mean by that without providing examples from these specific books.

Plotting is a tricky business. What it boils down to is that you want the reader to be wondering what happens next. You want the reader to want to keep turning the pages.

The plotless book is mainly just an unrelieved litany of depressing events. After a hundred pages, I’ve given up wondering if something wonderful is going to happen next. The main character, a boy 9 or 10 years old, is mainly an observer. He has no power to affect anything, and doesn’t even try. I feel no desire to keep wading through his misery.

In the book with too much plot, the main character has a clear goal — to rescue her father, who has vanished. She faces terrible dangers, and takes some decisive actions. That’s all to the good. But she’s not just the main character — for the first hundred pages, she’s basically the only character. (The book’s title is her name, in fact.) We know she’s not going to die in any of her horrible encounters with monsters at every turn in the road, because if she died, the story would end. And for quite a stretch of time, she has no companions who might be gravely injured, or disappear into a crevice in a glacier or whatever.

Eventually — big surprise! — she will run into a handsome young man who will turn out to be a both a prince and an expert swordsman, and they will fare onward together. Even then, we can be confident that the young woman will emerge victorious from her next agonizing difficulty, just as she did from the last one. And there’s nothing else to care about. No matter how nasty the author makes her journey, she is in no danger at all. As a result, her travails, no matter how harrowing, soon become tedious.

You know who I like? Carl Hiaasen. I read his books clear through, from beginning to end. They’re not fantasy, of course; they’re crime novels. But he keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next. Things that you don’t expect keep popping up, in part because each story has several viewpoint characters, and in part because he has a well-developed sense of whimsy. Some would call it sarcasm. He’s clearly having fun making up the story, and he wants you to have fun too.

That’s not the only way to make a plot that will grab readers, but it’s a good one.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

Where to Begin?

Posted by midiguru on January 30, 2015

As a writer, my motto is, “Well begun is half done.” But that’s about developing a solid outline, and applies equally well to fiction and nonfiction. Writing a good lead sentence for a nonfiction article is of course important. But in the case of fiction, the question of where to begin the story can be rather vexing.

The Latin phrase in medias res, “in the middle of things,” is a valuable touchstone. Begin at a moment in the story when events have already started bubbling up. This is a fairly modern idea, however, and has as a great deal to do with the desire to sell books. If someone picks up your book at the bookstore and opens it to page 1, you want to grab them from the very first sentence.

John D. MacDonald, who sold a lot of books, once started a novel with the sentence, “We were just about to give up and call it a night when they threw the girl off the bridge.” This is an approximate quote — those paperbacks are in a box in the garage. But you get the idea.

Here’s the opening of The Neon Court, the third volume in Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series (paragraph breaks omitted): “I thought I could hear footsteps in the darkness behind me. But when I looked again, they were gone. I was in the middle of a sentence. I was saying, “… ‘dragon’ is probably too biologically specific a way to look at the …” Then someone grabbed me by the throat with the fist of God, and held me steady, while the universe turned on its head. There was a hole in the world and no fingers left to scrabble. I fell into it.” We have no idea what’s going on here, but the writer is doing her damnedest to make sure we will want to keep reading!

This sort of opening was not always the fashion. Here’s a rather more relaxed opening, which you may recognize:

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history. Further information will also be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit. That story was derived from the earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself, the first Hobbit to become famous in the world at large, and called by him There and Back Again, since they told of his journey into the East and his return: an adventure which later involved all the Hobbits in the great events of that Age that are here related.

Many, however, may wish to know more about this remarkable people from the outset….

I’m trying to find an agent for a novel that I’ve written (the first volume in a projected series). Agents typically ask to read the first ten pages — but if you think you have ten pages to get the agent hooked, you’re kidding yourself. If they don’t like the first paragraph, you’re dead in the water. So I’ve been thinking about how to strengthen the opening of my book. While pondering this question, I wandered down to the local public library and happened to pick up a volume containing three novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Today she’s best known — or known at all, really — for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but it wasn’t her only work. The opening passage of The Minister’s Wooing gives us a unique look at the question:

Mrs. Katy Scudder had invited Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Jones, and Deacon Twitchel’s wife to take tea with her on the afternoon of June second, A. D. 17–.

When one has a story to tell, one is always puzzled which end of it to begin at. You have a whole corps of people to introduce that you know and your reader doesn’t; and one thing so presupposes another, that, whichever way you turn your patchwork, the figures still seem ill-arranged. The small item which I have given will do as well as any other to begin with, as it certainly will lead you to ask, “Pray, who was Mrs. Katy Scudder?” — and this will start me systematically on my story.

The danger, which Stowe alludes to, is that if you jump straight into the middle of things, your reader may be more bothered and bewildered than bewitched. And the more complex the tale, the greater the danger. I once encountered (I won’t say “once read,” as I quickly gave up) a fantasy novel in which about fifteen names of people and places were shoveled into the first four pages in a panic-stricken attempt to explain the back-story to the reader, but without any explanation of who or what any of them was. I’m sure it all made perfect sense to the writer. But as Stowe wisely points out, you know a lot of things that your reader doesn’t.

The openings of Henry James’s novels tend to be rather opaque, but one has the sense that something is being described that is, if not of great moment, certainly worth pondering. I haven’t read James’s The Spoils of Poynton, but I think its opening illustrates this quality:

Mrs. Gereth had said she would go with the rest to church, but suddenly it seemed to her that she should not be able to wait even till church-time for relief: breakfast, at Waterbath, was a punctual meal, and she had still nearly an hour on her hands. Knowing the church to be near, she prepared in her room for the little rural walk, and on her way down again, passing through the corridors and observing imbecilities of decoration, the aesthetic misery of the big commodious house, she felt a return of the tide of last night’s irritation, a renewal of everything she could secretly suffer from ugliness and stupidity. Why did she consent to such contacts? why did she so rashly expose herself? She had had, heaven knew, her reasons….

This is all very mysterious, but it’s so well written that the reader (at least, the reader who has a decent vocabulary and can parse long sentences) is bound to feel confident that all will eventually be made clear.

Somewhere in the chasm that separates Kate Griffin from Henry James, I’m hoping to find a sweet spot.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 121 other followers