Friday, December 31, 2010

Year in Review – 2010

Well it’s nearly the end of the year time to look back at what I was able to accomplish writing.

The first item was to have at least two blog entries a month for my Storytelling in All its Forms blog. I was able to keep this goal. I admit that in the last couple months its been tough to stay current with this blog, but I’ve done my best reaching a total of 25 blog entries for this page this year. Its about half of what I did in 2008 and 2009 but that was to be expected.

Over at Movie Reviews and Musings I had a total of 110 reviews and blog entries this year. That number is a bit skewed since the first couple of months I used a style for my longer entries where I separated them into two blogs. I decided to just make them on entry with my review of Toy Story 3 and I think it works out better that way. I’ll probably go back and do some tiding up this year so I have a more accurate count of the reviews. They are probably closer to 80 or so, but still that’s a lot of material for my first year. I had a blast doing this, writing about all kinds of movies and getting some great feedback. Thanks to all of you who read and provide the feedback.

The big game changer was becoming a staff reviewer at DVD Verdict. This has not only put my name out there to a larger audience but allowed me to review movies I wouldn’t necessarily pick – especially in the documentary front. I love writing for the Verdict, but it does eat into my time a bit more and that is why you see a major decrease in movie reviews at my blog site around October. I was doing about 10 reviews a month and it died down to around 3. In 2011 I want to get it around five reviews a month, with some of them being the mini reviews. I’ve got plenty of material to review and that I planned to review, but time is just not there.

My fiction writing has suffered a bit. My big plans for this year was to get a second draft of two novels and get a new one written. I was only able to achieve one goal. I got a second draft of my space opera done, and my wife started reading it (until work issues began to eat into her reading time). I started work on my second draft of my supernatural thriller, but got sidetracked part way through by… a video game. Ah “Dragon Age” you were so wonderful to play and you ate up so much time. As for the new novel, we planned our vacation right in the middle of NaNoWriMo this year and that took away the month I was planning to spend writing (pre-Verdict). I did have one short story submitted to a magazine this year and it got rejected.

So where does that leave me. Well I’m writing about movies and having a great time, so I can’t complain. I feel a bit bad about my fiction writing getting the short shift, but I’m thinking that with some planning I can work out a better schedule next year. But the key is, I’m writing and I’m enjoying it. I’ve got a few loyal readers of my blogs and I appreciate your feedback and encouragement. It’s nice to know that someone out there is taking the time to read my work. I’m looking forward to next year and seeing what it’s going to bring.

What was your writing year like? Did you set and meet any goals? Anything unexpected (good or bad) happen?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Humanity Stinks – Gulliver’s Travels

My encounters with “Gulliver’s Travels” have been many and sordid. When I was a kid I watched the Max Fleischer animated version of the story. I also watched the Ray Harryhausen version called, “The Three Worlds of Gulliver” (featuring an amazing musical score by Bernard Herrmann). I didn’t actually read the novel until my senior year in high school and at that point we only read the first two adventures – Gulliver’s visits to Lilliput and Brobdingnag. My first year in university we jumped to the final voyage to the land of the Houyhnhnms. I never read the story of the floating island (with both teachers explaining that it was a satire of philosophy and scientific thought particular to the 1700s).

I was reminded of the book because I enjoying the musical work of Herrmann for his Harryhausen epics “Jason of the Argonauts” and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”. When I found out THAT Hermmann also wrote the score to the Gulliver film I was reminded of the novel I never read completely. Turns out I could enjoy it for free on my Kindle, so it was the first novel I downloaded (but not the first I read).

Anyway, I was surprised how entertaining the whole novel was. Being able to read all four adventures and be a bit older and wiser now, I think I found it a lot funnier than I did originally. But I also have to say that the third book is the least entertaining, and actually caused me to read “Nausicaa” instead. But I stuck with it to get to the fourth and nastiest bit of satire the voyage to the Houynhnms.

Did Swift really loathe humanity that much? Or was he driving his point home in as obvious a way as possible. The view of the yahoos and Gulliver’s constant comparison of them with humans is pretty fierce and nasty. At the same time Gulliver himself changes as the book progresses. The man at the beginning is not the man who ends up laving the land of the Houynhnms. So is Swift the bitter angry one or Gulliver?

Still the story takes a good hard look at humans and doesn’t like what it sees. And for all the social and government commentary in a book written in 1735 a lot of it is very relevant today. Would Mr. Swift find that funny or sad? One thing is for sure he would shudder with terror at the Jack Black feature bearing this story’s name.

What do you think of “Gulliver’s Travels”? Was Swift the angry one, or is Gulliver the bitter man? Do you think the stories are still relevant?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Catching up with Classics – The Time Machine

I enjoy reading sci-fi, so it came as a bit of a shock when I realized I’d never actually read anything by a writer who many consider one of the father’s of science fiction: H.G. Wells. Ok, I believe I did read the radio play adaptation by or Orsen Welles of the classic novel “The War of the Worlds”, but I’ve never actually read anything by the man himself.

So I decided to try “The Time Machine”. I wasn’t very long and I figured if I couldn’t get into the style then I wouldn’t have to try too hard to finish it. My only experience with the story is the classic George Pal film from 1960. When I was a kid I used to watch this one my with my dad, who probably enjoyed it in his youth. I remembered the basics, how he traveled into the future and met the blonde folks and the ugly underground dwellers. But aside from that, I was a newbie.

The first part of the book threw me off, mostly because the time traveler starts speaking about math right off the bat. Being a writer I have issues wrapping my head around conceptual math, so I was a bit nervous about the rest of the book. But after explaining the basic principle of why time travel should work, we jump into the story.

I enjoyed it quite a bit. Wells does a good job of creating a story that revolves around the idea of mankind in the far future but splitting into two very different paths. At first you aren’t even sure that these are both decedents of man, more like alien beings that ended up taking over. But when the truth is revealed the horror of it is pretty interesting.

Would sci-fi be the same without this novel? Hard to say. Time travel stories abound now, especially in shows like “Star Trek” and “Stargate”. When they are told well, they can be very entertaining, like the “Back to the Future” trilogy. But Wells does something that you don’t see very often, use time travel to comment on humankind. Where are we going and how will we get there? Will we like what we see? To Wells, the future wasn’t shiny and exciting, but disturbing and bleak. He wanted us to see that social ills could develop into a horror story. While some view this as simplistic, I think that Wells did a good job at creating an entertaining story that made you think -something that the best sci-fi authors (like Asimov) strive for.

What did you think of “The Time Mahine”? Did you see any versions in TV or film that you enjoyed? Do you have a favorite time travel adventure story?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

If they can do it… - Writer’s Envy

I had the experience of reading a book that wasn’t very good, by an author that is fairly popular in a genre that I enjoy. The trick is, I find I read a lot of “classics” and not much new material. Not sure if its because I’m afraid of things that aren’t tried and true, or if its because I’m not sure I want to know who my competition is.

In this case I felt pretty good that I’m better than the competition. This writer has a pretty high place in the Kindle reading list for the genre. Of course several of this writer’s books are free. I picked up one of the free ones myself. But the first thing I noticed was the inconsistencies of style, something that actually hurt my enjoyment of the story.

The big offender was switching perspectives from one paragraph to another without a break of any kind. You’re just reading along and it’s Joe’s perspective. Then the next paragraph is told from the point of view of Lou, who just showed up. That goes on for a few paragraphs and then it jumps back to Joe.

I found myself disoriented and needing to reread sections to make sure I wasn’t missing something. At first I thought it was an error on Kindle, and then I realized after the fourth time or so that this is just how the writer writes. I wondered why an editor didn’t say something. Am I a fuddy duddy and the hip kids are doing this kind of thing now? Or is this breaking a rule of basic writing.

Look if you’re going to be artsy in your work, if you want to make a point about changing perspectives and you pull that – hey I can understand that. Its part of your message and theme and you’re using the medium to make the point. But this just felt sloppy.

One of these changes was to a character who had one scene and then was gone, never to resurface in the book again. Ok, then what was the point in getting in her head. It added a tiny bit of perspective, but at the same time it really didn’t have much relevance to the overall tale. I’m pretty certain a good editor would have caught that and cut it.

Then there was the lead character. Now having your lead be an unpleasant asshole can work. “Lord Foul’s Bane” had this issue and actually pulled it off, making a point about the man and his view of the worlds. But this main character was angry and bitter and filled with so much bile that I started hoping he’d get killed, because the other characters were slightly more interesting. And since the author had no problem switch perspectives then it was possible to just jump over to the other character –right? Sorry, we’re stuck with this jerk. Since it was a series, we’re stuck with him for several books.

It takes a skilled writer to pull off a good antihero, or a lead who is so unpleasant that you are curious about how he’ll end up. But this author only made a guy who was annoying enough to make you want to see him dead. Not a good sign.

I didn’t finish the book, I couldn’t. I read about 40% of it before I gave it up for lost (nice that Kindle can show that % complete). But I was still puzzled that if someone who wrote this can be a top author in sales on Kindle, than that means that someone who writes better (maybe me) could do the same thing. Like I said this was a series and looking at the comments of the book I saw a lot positive reviews. My question is, how did the author get the word out and get people to read the books in the first place. Giving them away helps a great deal I’m sure, but if others don’t have a problem with sloppy writing, well I can say it gives me hope.

Have you run into sloppy writing in a popular book that made you feel – hey I can do better! Tell your story. Am I a fuddy duddy and the freedom of writing can be warped for the art? Should I be worried that a poorly told tale is attracting so much attention or does it merit some hope?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Different Track – Firestarter

Picked up Stephen King’s “Firestarter” for the first time. I’ve been doing my best over the years to read more of his older work, and I’ve found much of it very entertaining and some of it top notch stuff (“Salem’s Lot” was excellent). “Firestarter” has a lot of good things going for it, and I can recommend it as an above average work by the author.

What I found most interesting is that the novel really isn’t a horror story. It reminded me much more of something you’d find on “The X-files”. It follows a father and daughter on the run from a shadowy government agency that will stop at nothing to obtain them. The father has the ability to psychically persuade people to do his bidding, even going so far as to blind them by telling them “You’re blind”. This ability comes at a cost, doing damage to his brain with each use.

His daughter, Charlie, is more powerful, with the ability to start fires with her mind as well as move objects and even limited telepathy. But she’s only six and can barely control her powers. It becomes obvious early on that the government agents are really after Charlie, because of her potential. The kicker is that Charlie’s parents were both drugged in college by this same agency to test a chemical that would heighten brain activity. Once the scientists realized that not only had this change become permanent, but that it affected the parents genetic code – they see a million uses for this drug as a tool for national security.

The novel was written in the late 70’s and you can feel the disillusion with the government seeping out of every pore in the book. Watergate is mentioned numerous times, and one of the main villains, Rainbird, is a seriously deranged veteran of the Vietnam war. It puts a definite time stamp on the book, but one that could easily be moved to the conspiracy crazed days of the mid and late 90’s or the post 911 world. How eager would any government be to find a way to use these gifts to defend or attack as needed?

Not too long ago I listened to a pod cast that discussed how both the US and USSR experimented with mental abilities during the cold war. According to some, the USSR actually got a few telepaths and precogs to work for them. You can see how an interesting story can develop. I wonder how much of this research came up when King did his work on the book “Carrie”.

It reminded me how much my novels and stories are affected by the times in which they were written. My third novel dealt with virtual reality. Remember when that was all the rage in the late 90’s? Yeah me too. If I ever revisit that novel, I’m gonna have to update that part a bit, along with the references to dial up modems.

Ever read “Firestarter”? What did you think of it? Have you ever read a story that seemed very influenced by the time period it was written and wondered how it would have worked if it was written later or earlier? Have you found a past work you’ve written affected by the times it was written during?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Dark Adventure - Dracula

As a kid I loved fantasy and sci-fi movies and stories and so I missed the whole fascination that many of peers had with horror films, classic and otherwise. Sure I knew about vampires and werewolves, but I never really saw a vampire movie till “The Lost Boys”. My first exposure to any form of Dracula was actually the 1992 Coppola version. I really like that film, in spite of its flaws, and at the time it really captured my imagination. I ended up seeking out Bram Stoker’s book and was amazed by two things. First, Coppola had stayed pretty true to the story (only adding the Beauty and the Beast romantic angle for the Count and Mina). Second, the book was duller than dirt.

I found the idea of a book comprised of journal entries and letters to be absurd. I was annoyed that Dracula never got a point of view in the story. I thought that any horror was horribly diluted by the style and that it took away from any punch the story made have had. I thought that Coppola was right to add the romance angle and crank up the sexiness that was buried in the narrative. I actually gave the book away, I was so annoyed with it.

Flash forward to this summer and for my birthday my wife gets me a Kindle. As I’m playing around with it, checking out all the public domain books I can choose, one title jumps out at me, “Dracula”. Having just enjoyed a successful reread of another horror classic, “The Haunting of Hill House”, I used that as my test book. I figured I’d just download it to see an example of how the public domain novel would look on my new device. I started reading Jonathan Harker’s journal entry… and was unable to put the book down until the end.

Safe to say that I really enjoyed it this time around. Why the big change of heart? I think it’s because I knew what to expect this time around. I also discovered that while the horror of the story is diluted, it instead turns into more of an adventure story. Well heck, I love a good adventure story. The letters and journals create interesting characters, with Stoker giving each a unique voice and perspective. Dracula is more enigmatic because we never see his point of view, only the view of the victims and hunters. I was also intrigued to see how loathsome and deadly the vampire was in this incarnation. Our modern vampires (yes I’m looking at you “Twilight” but Ann Rice’s sudsy creations are just as guilty) really look like whiney wimps compared to the count in this novel.

A quick check on the ever-reliable Wikipedia tells me that “Dracula” was actually considered an adventure story when it was first published. It was also considered a tale of invasion; with the dark force from central Europe creeping into England and threatening it’s women. But it wasn’t considered a classic tale of horror until the silent film “Nosferatu” was released in 1922 I’ve seen that film and yeah, it’s still pretty darn creepy.

What’s interesting is that Stephen King viewed the novel “Dracula” as an adventure novel too, but with a horror twist. He said he noticed it when he read “Lord of the Rings”. As he was reading Tolkien’s work he was amazed how many parallels he found with Stoker’s novel. So he always considered Stoker to the originator of the modern fantasy novel. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I can see where King is coming from. Without having that horror stamp hanging over it, “Dracula” seems like a better novel, because it works well with its adventure and mystery elements. The macabre overtones act more as accents that make it distinctive. If you want a good vampire novel that actually chills, check out King’s “Salem’s Lot”. Not only does he take Stoker’s ideas and modernizes them, but he adds a bit of Lovecraft as well. It’s a very good book, especially for a second novel.

I’m getting off the track here. “Dracula” will always be a classic, and will probably always be considered a classic horror novel. But give it another read (or a first read if you’ve never tackled it before) and see if it works a little better as an adventure story.

What do you think of the novel “Dracula”? Ever read a book with a set of expectations that actually ruined the experience of the novel? You think King is right in calling Stoker the inventor of modern fantasy?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What a character! – The Haunting of Hill House

The movie “The Haunting” is one of my favorite horror movies. While the opening credits informed me clearly that it was based on a book, I never thought to seek it out. A few years ago, I finally did get around to reading Shirley Jackson’s novel – and frankly I thought it was really lacking. There was no momentum to it. It went on and on about the main character and took forever to get to scares that never really happened. It was such a letdown – especially compared to the movie, which creeped into my brain as I watched it and had me jumping at shadows all night.

I decided to revisit “The Haunting of Hill House” again and see if maybe a few years would make a difference. Well, I think the big difference for me this time was that I knew what kind of book I was getting into. This was not a haunted house story, not really. It’s really a haunted person story. Eleanor is the focus of the book. The narrative often takes her point of view and when it doesn’t, it’s focused on her. Jackson is very careful to give us a very detailed look at the way Eleanor acts and reacts to the events leading up to her arrival at Hill House and her interaction with the other characters when she gets there.

The drive up to Hill House was one of the most annoying parts of the book when I first read it. Eleanor comments on many of the seemingly mundane things around her. I didn’t care! Get to the haunted house already! We get a little of this in the movie, but it’s only a couple scenes of her taking the car and leaving the city. The book actually charts all the stops she makes and what she does there. What’s the point? My second reading revealed that we see exactly how Eleanor takes these mundane stops and works herself into each situation in her mind. She creates elaborate fantasies about herself and these stops. Later in the book when she’s alone, Eleanor takes these fantasies and weaves them even further into her adventures at Hill House. Reality seems to slip away from her and the further she goes, the further into the house’s power she falls.

Make no mistake, Hill House is truly haunted by some power. The way it works on all the characters is a little different. We know more about Eleanor, because she’s the focus of the story, but it affects each character in its own way, filling them with dread. The house’s affect on Eleanor is causes her to see less and less harm in the house. It becomes a sanctuary for her. There are moments when the dread and fear are evident, but for the most part Eleanor is enchanted with Hill House and feels that she must become part of this fantasy. She almost becomes childlike at the end, completely giving up all sense of self to the fantasy of the house and her place in it.

In my mind, this book is a well-executed character study. Its moments of the supernatural are handled well, creating a feeling of unease. There have been arguments that the book takes place in Eleanor’s head. I don’t agree with that take. The house is haunted and Eleanor is the perfect victim, it swallows her whole. As for scares, the book still didn’t give me the creeps like the film did, but I will say that I enjoyed it a lot more and look forward to reading more of Jackson’s work.

What did you think of “The Haunting of Hill House”? Do you think Eleanor was an interesting character? Can you think of a book that was improved with the transfer to a film? Do you even want to discuss the 1999 version of the film?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A bit of Inspiration – On Writing

Sometimes we just need a mentor’s kind words to get us going back on track again. And it can pay to have that mentor in a handy dandy book form. One of my mentors is Stephen King. Now I know it may be a bit cliché now, but I’ll tell you what, the man can write and he has millions of readers. You could do worse than study his style and his technique. You should also pick up his view of writing in his book conveniently called “On Writing”.

The first part of the book is something of a biography that gives you an interesting portrait of the man. It covers what he feels are some of his influences and some of the events that shaped the kind of writer he is. It also covers the details of his attempts to crack into the world of publishing and his following success. He gets into his drug addition and his battle to free himself from it. He also talks about the accident that nearly took his life. Frankly it’s pretty straightforward and clear cut, not coming across as indulgent but as a way to give advice about being a writer and telling a good story.

After that he gets into the nuts and bolts of the process itself. He recommends books to use (Strunk and White’s Elements of Style) and gets into his process for creating a story and revising it. Like most writers, he’ll tell you to find your own way of doing things, but he does provide some hard and fast rules that I found very useful. One was to step away from your first draft for a while (a month if you can help it) and come back with a more subjective mind. It does work wonders, you see issues with greater clarity and you also have forgotten some of the really good stuff you put in there.

I see “On Writing” come up quite a bit as a book that most writers recommend to other writers, and I agree. Its like having the man right there helping you along and providing his advice in simple clear terms. King gets to the point and keeps it short. If you’ve never given the book a read, give it a try. Even if you don’t like his advice on writing, his biography is interesting enough to make it worth checking out.

Have you ever read “On Writing”? What did you think of it? Do you have a favorite book or essay from an author about writing? Do you read it from time to time to get you energized about writing?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Tale of Two Edits – Editing Your Work

I recently had the pleasure of editing two very different novels back to back. The first was a space opera that I completed about a year ago. I had gone through it with the red pen earlier in the year. I found my usual issues of repetition and over-explanation were running rampant. I also found that my ending was really poor. So I reworked the ending completely and put the book aside for a month and a half. Then I went back and made the edits to the document in my computer, going over the new ending at the same time.

What was interesting about this editing adventure was that this book was written at my leisure over the summer. I didn’t have a deadline, I just wrote the story idea I had and worked my way through it. I did end up losing steam by the end of the story and that explains why I didn’t really end the story so much as let it whimper out. The editing process reenergized my excitement about the story and so I carried that over into the new ending. I think it’s a lot better than what I originally created.

I also found that certain plot resolutions I had forgotten about were actually pretty clever. I’m talking about plot points that I injected into the story as I wrote, and didn’t have a clear resolution for. Turns out I had a resolution for them, and I just needed to connect the dots and make it a lot clearer. I’m still not sold on the opening of the story. I think I take too much time introducing my main character and not enough getting the story rolling. This book Is supposed to be an adventure story that grabs the reader. In my concern to create an interesting character I spend too much time showing him in his dullness, instead of showing him in action. My wife is of the same opinion, and I’m already planning some editing at the beginning. But I’m hoping the middle and end work as well I felt they did. Hopefully this can shape up to be a fun book, exactly the goal I’m looking at.

The other edit was for my National Novel Writing Month entry for 2009. This was my supernatural thriller. I wrote the initial draft in 30 days and it ended up being a little over 50, 000 words roughly 250 pages. It’s also fragmented, choppy and lacking a real punch at the end. I think this is a direct result of the deadline and brisk pace I set for myself. I like the basic story and some elements work really well. This is actually a more character-based story than my space opera. Unfortunately my main character suffers in this choppy version, and I feel she needs some better scenes shaping her personality.

I also ran into issues where elements of her past were mentioned and never expounded upon. They are important to her character, but I’m not sure if I want to include them in flashback (something I try to avoid) or include a series of scenes at the beginning of the book spanning those moments. I don’t like that idea because the opening chapter of the book has a great punch to it, really grabbing the reader.

The speedy writing also created several issues with continuity. I didn’t have time to check of a character burned her left or right hand, and so the burn switches as you go through the book. So little things like that need to be updated too.

In short I think this book is going to require more work than the one I spent more time on. Makes sense, but the thing I liked about the short writing time from NaNo is that I didn’t lose the energy of wanting to write. I was still excited about the novel as I crossed that finish line and you can feel it in the ending. It felt explosive and fun. While the space opera felt like a slog by the end as I was writing.

So, very different experiences writing and editing. Still not sure what is the best, and if maybe I can create a happy medium. Maybe a month and a half to write the novel? I’m still keen on giving NaNoWriMo at try this year, but I’m not sure I have a new story idea yet. Can I wing it and survive? I think that’s another blog.

Have you tried different styles of writing drafts and how did that affect the editing process? Do you find editing interesting or more like a tedious part of the process? Do you have a problem keeping the energy going for a long work?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hints in History - Oxford History of the Crusades

Once again I plunged into history and I found several good story ideas or elements I could use to color my stories. Just change the trappings and anything old is new again. And when you’re talking about the Crusades, you’re talking pretty old.

I picked up the book because of the video game “Assassin’s Creed” which takes place during the Third Crusade and did an excellent job of bringing the world to life. It inspired me to do a bit more research into the subject (especially since I love history and medieval history in particular). After some research I found that “The Oxford History of the Crusades” got some great reviews, so I picked it up.

I’ll be up front and say that this book is really for readers who are familiar with the Crusades already. It approaches the topic not chronology, but by topics. It also assumes you are pretty familiar with the events of the crusades, and goes more into aspects of the wars. Some of it was very interesting, including the examination of the Military Orders, such as the Templars. But this approach could become very dry, dissecting the events in a way that lost appeal for me. I love history because of the story it tells, the characters, the plot. Breaking it down in this way tends to be too distanced and cold.

But there were a couple of sections that really brought out the people who took part in these wars. One section dealt solely with the minds and perceptions of the early crusaders. Why would someone want to leave everything they ever knew and tromp off to kill or be killed in the Holy Land? Our modern minds can’t really understand it, and because of poor record keeping (especially during the first couple Crusades) we can only speculate. But the ideas presented are sound and provide a perspective that could be used in another format.

These people engage in a war that will not only serve the will of their god, but will assure them a place in heaven. It will remove all their sins, even the ones of killing, and give them a clean slate when they get to heaven. It all works out and the inspiration of their god or gods us driving them. They become a force to be reckoned with, especially against a government that is dealing with internal strife.

Set in a fantasy story line (althougth Robert Howard already did it in Conan a few times) or in a space opera setting and you’ve got lots of material to work with.

Also of note were the powerful Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa. They directly and indirectly affected the outcomes of the crusades with their trade wars and trade agreements. These powers affected the later crusades and ended up causing some major troubles for Christian military orders and Islamic armies alike. Again, I saw a lot of story potentials with these city-states and how they manipulated both sides to make the most money. You’ve got a lot of characters just waiting to be explored here.

Sure the obvious set up would be historical fiction. But for the genre writer, you can do more with this root. Just some research and your imagination and you’ve got all kinds of interesting stories waiting to be told.

So I suggest you check out the book and the Crusades in general. I think you’ll find all kinds of things to get your creative juices going and you’ll also learn a bit of world history in the progress. Not a bad deal really.

Have you used any history as a basis for your work? Do you have a favorite time period you enjoy researching? Have you read a book that seemed inspired by historical events but cloaked them in a creative way?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Where Myth and History Meet - The King Must Die

Being a big fan of mythology and the ancient world in general it was only a matter of time before I ran into the name Mary Renault. She is famous for her historical fiction based around the life and times of Alexander the Great. I was at the library looking for some ancient Greek flavored stories and ran into her work. I ended up choosing "The King Must Die" which promised an interesting take on the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Now, normally when someone drains the magic from mythology I end up disliking the results. The recent take on "The Illiad" in Wolfgang Peterson's "Troy" annoyed me to no end. But what Renault did in "The King Must Die" was much more interesting and reasoned out. She placed the story far back in the ancient timetable, around 1500 BCE. During this time the Minoan civilization ruled much of Aegean Sea. Renault places the story so that the Minoans demand sacrifice, not for a horrible monster, but for their deadly ceremony of bull leaping. This holy event requires the skills of nimble young women and man to dance around and over a charging bull. Those that are killed are done for the glory of the Earth Mother and Poseidon. This makes a certain amount of sense, and work with the myth of the Minotaur. The king, Minos also appears, but in this case Minos is a title, like Pharaoh. And all the kings of Crete are called Minos. Minotaur, or Minos' Bull is more of a nickname for the crown prince of Crete in this story, but his appearance at the end in the ceremonial bull mask makes him appear like the mythological monster we all know and love.

Aside from those historical elements, Renault works in all kinds of other ideas. Especially important is the power of Goddess worship in the ancient world. The Mother Goddess and her worshipers are in direct conflict with those who worship the Sky God. The melding that we are familiar with in Classical mythology hasn't occurred yet. The main difference between the two religions is the fact that Mother Goddess demands a yearly sacrifice of the King. If the King is not sacrificed than the harvest will fail and all manner of bad luck will occur. Those who worship the Sky God do not sacrifice their kings, but still commit blood offerings (usually animals) to the gods. Kings are held in much higher esteem. This conflict features heavily in the story, driving events in obvious and subtle ways.

The theme of the book is sacrifice. No matter what happens to characters in the story, some sacrifice must be made. If it is not, there are consequences, some of the deadly. Theseus sees his life as a King in terms of both a steward of his people (like Sky God) and a necessary sacrifice if needed (like the Mother Goddess demands). He is a fusion of these beliefs and it serves him well in his journey. However who and what he must sacrifice often dictate his choices.

Renault not only juggles these themes and ideas, but also keeps the story entertaining. As familiar as I was with the myth of Theseus, I was fascinated by the way she fused Minoan and Mycenean culture into the story. She also brings life to the mythological hero, giving him a personality that we can relate to and that works within the story. It's a great read, with plenty of conflict as well as thought provoking themes.

Have you ever read "The King Must Die"? What did you think of it? What do you think of approaching a mythological story but stripping it of the fantastic elements?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Grasp for Power - The Bloody Crown of Conan

It was time to revisit the Robert E. Howard and his Conan novels. I enjoyed the first set of stories I read by him. He has a great way with words and pacing, bringing a kind of breathless energy to his adventure stories. Sure some of his pulp writing tendencies would shine through a little too much; he loves using "black" as an adjective for everything. But for a thrilling ride into some very raw and red sword and sorcery tales, you have a lot to enjoy.

In this collection, I read the only novel length work by Howard for his Conan character. It's called "The Hour of the Dragon", and so far I think it may be my favorite Conan story. One of the interesting things about the story is why it was written. Howard was trying to sell a collection of his stories to a publisher in England. The publisher wrote back and said they liked his material, but that story collections weren't selling well in England at the time. They recommended that he send a novel along the same lines and that they would be more than happy to consider that. Howard got to work, taking bits and pieces of all the short stories he had worked on, wove them into another tale he had been working on, and then smoothed the whole thing out.

The result is what could be called the quintessential Conan story. Not only does it contain all of the typical adventure elements of his previous stories (giant snakes, resurrected sorcerers, massive battles between armies, harrowing escapes and plenty of half naked women), but he makes a ripping good story out of it too. One thing I liked, as a writer, was the fact that some of his story elements were also borrowed, altered and shined up. I could recognize them, but in almost every case, I enjoyed what he did with them in this incarnation over the previous appearances.

After reading the book, I picked up Stephen King's "Dance Macabre". That book was the first one to really point me in Howard's direction. I was curious to see what King said about a specific story I had read in the collection (The People of the Black Circle). I also found an interesting take on fantasy writing by Mr. King. In his opinion, the best fantasy stories deal with the finding of power and the understanding of how to use that power. If the story takes a tragic turn, the power is lost. He even sited Conan stories as being an example of badly done fantasy stories, because Conan has the power, uses it without any consequences and already understands that he is invulnerable.

In most cases I agree. Some of the Conan stories do feature a lead character that is invincible and overcomes all his enemies through strength and cunning. But "Hour of the Dragon" is a bit different. In this story Conan loses his power completely. He is literally paralyzed by a spell and watches helpless as his armies are crushed, and his kingship taken from him. He is imprisoned and told that he will be broken in spirit and body soon enough. Against him is the resurrected sorcerer I spoke of earlier. Conan escapes the prison (thanks to a half naked women and makes for his former kingdom. He tries to rally support for a revolution against the conquerors, but no one is willing to help him. They all fear the sorcerer and his limitless power.

Nearly halfway through the book we find that the gem used to resurrect the sorcerer is also the only thing that can destroy him. The sorcerer thought he had the gem in a safe place, but his own scheming underlings stole it from him, believing it was the source of his power. Conan goes after the gem, understanding that it is the only way he can regain his kingdom. Then you have your standard quest material, with Conan in hot pursuit of the gem and facing all kinds of obstacles. Once he gets the gem and returns to his kingdom he is ready to wage war against the usurpers and the sorcerer.

What is interesting is that the gem is called The Heart of Ahriman. This heart was literally located in the center of Conan's kingdom. Without the heart and the king who knows how to wield it, the people and land suffer. While the heart may provide Conan with the power to conquer other lands, he only wishes to use it to save his kingdom and people. This understanding allows him to use the heart and stop the sorcerer.

So going by Mr. King's definition, I think this story works as a "good fantasy" novel. But it's also a fun read as well. There are a few other interesting themes in the book. The essay at the end of the book points out a connection to The Grail Legend, that I found interesting. I also enjoyed the little nod to H.P. Lovecraft's ghouls. All in all if you are looking for one of the best Conan tales, check out this book. And any writers of fantasy stories would probably find plenty to enjoy with the drafts and synopsis at the end of the book, giving you a picture of how Howard constructed his tales.

What did you think of "Hour of the Dragon"? Do you agree with Mr. King's definition of fantasy stories? Do you have a favorite fantasy story that fits this definition? What's your favorite Conan story?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Written Variety Show - Smoke and Mirrors

I didn’t intend on reading all of “Smoke and Mirrors” by Neil Gaiman. I was just gonna read a few stories until the books I ordered were delivered. It was gonna take a week and I figured that “Smoke and Mirrors” would give me enough reading material for lunch.

The thing is that Gaiman’s easy storytelling, his skill with words, and his ability to weave tales that jump from short poems to sci-fi to Lovecraftian parody to horrific fairy tale caught my imagination just like it did a few years ago when I first read this compilation of short stories. I remembered why I was so excited to read more of his stuff after this sampling, and I realized why I always refer to this collection whenever I talk about Gaiman. Just looking over my blogs for “Stardust”, “Anansi Boys” and “Coraline” I notice that I make reference to his short stories every time.

So what is it about Gaiman’s work in “Smoke and Mirrors” that is so interesting? I have to say that it’s his skill in telling the story, no matter what type of story or what type of format it is in, he pulls you in. He also knows just the right length to make the stories compelling.

One of my favorites is the opening story, “Chivalry” which has a very Monty Python feel to it. It basically tells the story of a kind old woman who happens to find the Holy Grail at an antique store and what happens when she buys it. “The White Road” is a poem that tells a medieval type legend with horrifying loveliness. “Shoggoth’s Old Particular” is a tongue in cheek tale that twists H.P. Lovecraft’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth”. Fans of the horror writer will find a lot of chuckles in this one. “Only the End of the World Again” is a more serious take on Lovecraft and provides an intriguing protagonist. “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale” is a dark piece with a very dry British sense of humor and horror. “Murder Mysteries” combines Catholic mysticism and detective fiction. The finale is the wonderfully black “Snow, Glass, Apples”. People who don’t like to see their fairy tales tainted should avoid this little gem. Anyone who sees the darkness in fairy tales will dive right in.

Any writers looking for a set of short genre fiction stories to examine and inspire should really look no further. Gaiman has a couple stories that could arguably be considered non-genre, but for the most part he works with fantasy, horror and all the shades in between. Even his pure sci-fi stories have a bit of the fantastic about them. I can say that next time I’m feeling at a loss for short story material – I’ll just read a couple of stories from “Smoke and Mirrors” and grab that energy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a short story to work on.

Have you read “Smoke and Mirrors”? What did you think of it? What was your favorite story? Do you have a book you read to recharge your creative inspiration? Do you have a favorite short story compilation?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Goalie issues – Writing Goals and Missing Them

This year I actually set out some solid writing goals for myself. I wrote them down. As I met them, I put a nifty little red check mark next to them. I was feeling pretty good, until I realized that it was June and I was pretty far behind in my goals. Let’s take a look and see what I’ve done and haven’t done.

For the first quarter I actually met all my goals but two. I submitted a short story to a magazine. I created my movie review blog. I gave all my sites a little facelift of some kind. I joined a new group or blog. I started my second draft on my space opera novel. I didn’t write a new short story, and I didn’t research the YA sci-fi market.

Right away, I’m ready with excuses. I love my movie review blog, and once I got rolling with it, I’ve been coming up with all kinds of things to write about. I’ve got a surplus of reviews just waiting to be published, and I’ve been doing my best at keeping up with “Satellite News” in their coverage of the MST3K episodes. It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s also taken a lot of time. So, no short story and no research.

I wasn’t too worried because I could just write two short stories in the second quarter right? Yeah, it hasn’t happened. So now I’m two short stories behind. My plan was to write four short stories and two novels this year. Well I’m down a novel too, because I wanted to start that in the second quarter. This isn’t that big of an issue because I really want to start working on my second draft of “Forever Cold” my supernatural thriller that I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year. I’ll count that as my novel work for this summer, and cook up something new for NaNoWriMo this year.

But the short stories are proving a bit tougher. I’m just not motivated to work on them. Is it because I’m focusing so much creative energy on the movie blog? Possibly. But I’m enjoying myself - a lot. And if writing isn’t fun, than there isn’t a point in doing it. But on the other side of the coin, if I don’t get my work out there, I can’t continue down the path to publication. It’s a bit of a dilemma.

I’ve got a short story to submit to a magazine for this quarter, but I haven’t done any groundwork for that yet. I’m hoping to get that done by the end of the month, but we’ll see. After that, I don’t have any other stories I feel real good about submitting anywhere. There is one that is pretty good, but I’m not completely confident about it. It’s not genre and I did it on a whim. I’ve got cold feet, but my wife enjoyed it quite a bit and I trust her judgment.

As for my Space Opera second draft, I like elements of it, but at the same time it has the origin story issues. Lots of setup and some of it bogs down the pace. I need a fresh pair of eyes to look it over. I’m nearly done with the draft, just need to clean up some issues that always show up in the first draft. You know, where a character does something, and then a chapter or two later they do something that completely negates the original action. These aren’t big issues, but they need to be fixed. I don’t want my readers to say “Why did he go to a hotel when he’s got a place in town?”

Third quarter will be spent on the second draft of “Forever Cold” and maybe I’ll be able to get some short stories done. I’m gonna continue the movie blog, but try to get my surplus reviews out there, and slow down the new reviews. Once Satellite news finishes Season Ten of MST3K they are going back to the old cable access episodes. I have no desire to watch those episodes (Season One is slow enough). So I will be able to review whatever episodes I want, and I’ve got some already written.

Fourth Quarter will be focused on NaNoWriMo and wrapping up any loose ends. Will I reach my goal of four short stories submitted, and four new ones written? Will I finish the second draft of “Forever Cold”? I hope so. I do know that I’m gonna print this page of goals out and put on the wall to replace the old goals I have from last year. Maybe with those staring me in the face I’ll stop writing the movie reviews and get back to fiction.

Do you make writing goals for yourself? How well do you stay on top of them? Do you have a technique to keep them on your mind? Do you find yourself getting sucked into a project and missing one of your goals – or am I just a big freak that way?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Converging Storylines – Count Zero

It’s been a few years since I tackled William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”. It was an interesting read for a few reasons. It is often considered the first real cyber-punk novel. It also ended up inspiring a role-playing game I enjoyed in my youth “Shadowrun” as well as provided some of the basic inspiration for the excellent anime franchise “Ghost in the Shell”.

So when I sat down to read “Count Zero” I had an idea of what to expect. Gibson has a very dense style of prose. He gets a little too flowery in his descriptions for my taste, but he does know how to craft an intriguing story.

“Count Zero” takes a tricky path. It presents us with three protagonists, each with their own storyline. Gibson then jumps from storyline to storyline with each new chapter. At first all three stories seem unrelated, but you begin to see threads that do unite them. Of course the ending has all the stories clash in one way or the other. In addition, the events of “Neuromancer” are used as set up for “Count Zero”. So if you plan on reading this book, I suggest you start with “Neuromancer” first. I was a little fuzzy on the older book and had to look some stuff up on fan sites to refresh my memory.

The tactic of using three different stories isn’t new, but it is a challenge. You need to be able to craft three stories that are equally interesting and then tie them together in a way that keeps the reader turning pages. This requires some serious skill in pacing and story development. For the most part Gibson succeeds. His three protagonists couldn’t be more different. You’ve got an experienced mercenary, a punk kid hacker and a disgraced woman searching for a mysterious artist.

The action fan in me enjoyed the mercenary’s story the most. But the hacker kid had a lot of action in his story as well (and a bit of humor). The woman searching for the artist started out a little slow, but her journey is the most mysterious. When she turned up I was looking forward to what new clue she would discover. I have to give Gibson credit for really weaving the story well and telling it in a fairly compact form. My copy of the book is 244 pages long.

As for the sci-fi elements, the view of the world here is taken from the 80’s. The Internet was in a very basic form at this point. The Matrix (this worlds version of the internet combined with virtual reality) seems a bit silly sounding to us now. Everyone is jacking in using wires and there are still public phones. Wireless technology isn’t around, but people have full holographic videophones. It’s an interesting view, one that was probably edgy in the mid 80’s when this was written.

But as with most good sci-fi, it is Gibson’s ideas that still carry over with time. Artificial Intelligence takes a key role in this book. The integration of computers with humans is also a major point. Both of these elements would be explored even deeper in “Ghost in the Shell”, but its very interesting to see how Gibson approaches them here.

Still it’s worth checking out for any sci-fi writers who haven’t read Gibson yet. His three story line structure is executed with skill and the story moves quickly. I’m looking forward to picking up more of his work.

What do you think of Gibson’s work? Have you read “Count Zero”? Have you tried writing an intertwined three story novel? Have you read another book using the same technique?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bond Goes Goth – You Only Live Twice (novel)

Ian Fleming wrote three James Bond novels that included the evil Ernst Blofeld: “Thunderball”, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and “You Only Live Twice”. These three novels are interesting because they present James Bond with a complete story arc, one that ends in the final book “You Only Live Twice”.

Most people are familiar with the film version of this book. James Bond goes to Japan, finds Blofeld in a hallowed out volcano and launching a space ship that eats up space capsules. Much of the look of that film ended up spoofed in “Austin Powers”, it’s iconic James Bond at his most swinging 60’s.

The book couldn’t be further from the film. Part of this has to do with the placement of the book versus the placement of the films. In the film version, “You Only Live Twice” is the first time James Bond comes face to face with Blofeld. But in the novels, Bond faced him in Switzerland during “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. That book ends in tragedy, and that tragedy carries over into the next novel. James Bond is off of his game, he’s making mistakes and endangering his missions. M is at a loss, but he comes up with a solution. He’ll put Bond in a no win scenario, and it will force Bond to come to his senses or die.

At first the no win scenario seems benign, decidedly anti-007. He has to go to Japan and convince the Japanese secret service to share their intelligence stream coming from Russia (the book was written in 1964). Britain is feeling left out because the US has access to all this great information. This is a diplomacy issue, something that Bond does not excel at, and it involves a culture he knows nothing about. This is his last shot so he can’t fail, but it seems impossible, especially when he gets to know the decidedly cool “Tiger” Tanaka – head of the secret service.

In the end Tanaka is willing to consider an exchange, but he wants Bond to perform an assassination for it. Turns out there is a mysterious doctor who has purchased an old feudal castle and turned it into a suicide haven. Its garden is filled with poisonous plants, venomous insects and snakes, bubbling pools of sulfuric mud and your typical pool of piranha instead of Koi. While it is meeting a need, the Japanese have the highest suicide rate in the world, Tanaka sees it as a cancer that must be purged. Bond is set up to take down the doctor and his castle of death. You get one guess to figure out who the crazed doctor turns out to be.

This book is many things, but it is not a James Bond adventure that most readers will be used to. Ian Fleming’s novels are not as fast paced and action packed as the films anyway, but this book comes across more like a travelogue with a dour and grim atmosphere.

Death permeates the entire book, from Bond lamenting over the death of Tereza, up to Blofeld’s perfect castle for suicide. The book even contains an obituary for James Bond, as well as a rebirth of sorts in the last chapter. The mission is hopeless, and Bond begins to feel that he will not survive it. This makes for a bleak novel that plays it very cold and very straight – just like a katana sword.

For all of that, it’s still James Bond. He still drinks hard, smokes like a train, beds nearly any girl who is willing and is deadly cool when it comes down to the wire. It just feels like a lot of the lightness and flippant nature of the character is gone. In its place is a man broken and is facing death.

If you look at the Blofeld series as a story arc, it is obvious that James Bond grows up in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. He gets married at the end! But here is the first time where Bond faces death at every turn and even goes into an underworld of sorts to face a supreme devil in the form of Bloefeld. It’s an ending that seems fitting not only for Bond but for the series as a whole. The next book in the series, “The Man with the Golden Gun” was never completely finished and the result is a lesser novel of the series. For me “You Only Live Twice” is a fitting end to an interesting literary character – especially since it is an atypical adventure for the British agent.

Have you read “You Only Live Twice”? What did you think of it? Do you think an author can and should take a chance with a well-known character and create something so different from audience expectations? Can you think of an example that worked?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Beginning? – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (novel)

Ever wonder how to set up a multiple book series? Why not study one of the most popular and famous series in print – Harry Potter. Now I know a lot of writers who look down on J.K. Rowling and her series, but I find them to be great reads and constantly entertaining and compelling. I think she did a good job not only telling her story, but laying it out. Reading the series through a second time I’ve been focusing on the way she constructs her tale. It goes without saying that I’m going to go into spoiler territory here. I’m also assuming you are familiar with most of the names and terminology here.

The fourth book in a seven book series, “Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire” (I’ll continue calling it “Goblet” for short), is the point where Rowling changes everything about the series. What started out as a playful series of adventures and fun takes its first real step into darkness. The most obvious are the death of student near the end of the book. In addition you have the return of the greatest force of evil in the series, now back to full power and prepared to wage war on the forces of goodness. But let’s take a look at some of the details that Rowling uses beyond these obvious points.

The first few chapters deal with Harry and the Weasley family enjoying the Quidditch World Cup. On the surface these scenes serve the basic function of providing Quidditch action in a book that won’t have any during the school year. But it also expands the scope of Rowling’s world in an entertaining way. We see that there are magical societies outside of the ones we are familiar with in England. This wider view not only fleshes out the world, but also makes the stakes of the later books higher. We understand that Voldemort’s desire for control of the magical world extends beyond the British Isles and into a larger world.

The other key element in this sequence is the appearance of The Death Eaters, Lord Voldemort’s followers. Up to this point, they’ve been kept as a vague idea, something that happened long ago. But we see them in action here, and Harry as well as the reader gets a sense of the fear they can generate. And when the Dark Mark appears and causes a frenzy of fear – things become even clearer.

At school Harry first hears about the wizards who battle the Dark Arts, called Aurors. These are embodied by Mad Eye Moody, a scarred, paranoid and dangerous wizard who teaches at the school. Moody in this book is a key element. Not only does he represent the tolls of battle against the dark arts, but he also shows the kind of will and personality needed in a time of war – something none of the children have ever considered. And beneath that is the secret that Moody hides – he’s not the real Moody at all, but an imposter. He’s a dark wizard working for Voldemort and doing his best to deliver Harry Potter to his master. This undermining of a dangerous Auror shows us very clearly how dangerous things are about to become.

It is the climax of this book that changes the tone of the series. The moment Cedric is killed in the cemetery nothing is ever the same for Harry Potter. He can’t turn aside from facing down Voldemort. He can’t ignore the consequences of his actions. In many ways, when Wormtail stabs Harry with the knife, he kills the child, and the adult Harry Potter is born.

The last chapter of the book is called “The Beginning” and it is fitting in many ways. This book marks the beginning of the war story that takes the rest of the series to complete. This marks the beginning of adult Harry and the final stages of his hero’s journey. From this book forward there is little time to be a child any more. The world has become too dangerous, and that danger is focused on Harry Potter.

What do you think of Rowling’s approach to this vital section of her Harry Potter story? Any other elements you can think of that reflect the major change in storytelling in this series? What did you think of this book in comparison to the others?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Pants on Fire – Thank you For Smoking

The success of a book like “Thank you for Smoking” rests on the shoulders of creating a solid antihero. And if anything Nick Naylor is an antihero. He lies for a living. His job is to go onto television and radio and spin attacks against the tobacco industry into positives. He uses shaky statistics, charisma and a quick wit to keep twisting the attacks back onto the attackers, and he’s very good at it.

Christopher Buckley has created a very interesting character, one that is despicable and yet at the same time likable. Nick knows what he’s doing is morally wrong, but he’s so darn good at it, that the challenge seems to feed him. He rises to each attack, many seemingly hopeless and manages to get out of the predicament each time.

As a reader you keep turning the pages to see what new challenge Nick will face next and how he’ll get around it. He’s on Oprah with a young man who’s got cancer, and who was inspired to smoke by Joe Camel. How do you turn that into a positive – Nick does it. The senator from Vermont wants to put the skull and crossbones on cigarette packs. Nick turns it into an issue with Vermont cheddar cheese. He’s sent to Hollywood to get cigarettes into more movies and shown in a positive light. The whole situations provides a hilarious look at product placement in films.

The book as a whole is very cynical and black hearted, but it’s consistently amusing and had a few laugh out loud moments. It’s the character of Nick that keeps it interesting and fun. And even when I felt that the whole thing was getting stretched just a bit too thin, Buckly starts to wrap up his tale.

All in all it’s a good study on how to make an entertaining and interesting antihero.

Have you read, “Thank you for Smoking”? What did you think? Who is your favorite antihero character?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Weaving the Plot - David Copperfield

Last year I took a crack at Charles Dickens and read “Great Expectations”. I found the experience to be entertaining and educational. So this year I decided to give him another try (again during winter, which just seems like a Dickensian time). I heard that “David Copperfield” was not only the book that Dickens’ considered his favorite, but many readers consider it to be one of his most accessible novels. At the bookstore I was in for a bit of a shock – “David Copperfield” was a huge book. Weighing in at slightly less than one ton, I was intimidated. Could I endure that much Dickens, or would it end in tears? But hey, I read all of “The Histories” by Herodotus and it was about that long.

Once again it took me a couple of chapters to get into the style and language of the time. Dickens is pretty notorious for getting paid by the word, and yes there are sections of this story that prove that. But Dickens does something else that helps increase his word count without being overly verbose – he structures his story in a way that lends itself to multiple points of view. He did this to an extent in “Great Expectations”, but in “David Copperfield” it felt more obvious.

David is telling us his story, and so he provides us with two points of view. One point of view is of younger David as he makes his way through life and the other is the older David commenting on that life. This isn’t Dickens merely restating the same scenes, he actually offers commentary as older David, hinting at things we have yet to read and offering a bit more depth that the younger David can’t know. This duality actually works very well to not only increase the word count, but also add to the story on various levels.

The other thing that Dickens does is introduce a whole cast of interesting and colorful supporting characters. Some of them help David, some of them actively try to hinder him. All of them pop up continuously through the narrative. This is typical of Dickens and some fault him for it. I find it to be a charming part of the world he creates. Yes, he is commenting on current events, but I think it’s a bit easier for us reading years later to see it as a different world, a fiction where people would come into contact throughout life.

The danger of this technique is that readers will lose track of who is who. Dickens avoids this by give each character a unique personality. Sure Mr. Murdstone and Uriah Heep are both villains (with great names!), but they are uniquely wicked in their own ways. Murdstone is a rigid man who’s hypocritical adherence to religion and rules literally destroys those around him. Heep on the other hand is a slimy man, who puts on a face of humility while abusing the weaknesses of others and going out of his way to make everyone as unhappy as he is. The characters are so vividly drawn and observed by both David’s that the reader actually wants to know just what is going to happen next.

And that is pretty much what happened. I was engrossed in the story and enjoyed reading the weighty tome to its conclusion. David Copperfield himself is a rather bland fellow, reminding me a great deal of Pip from “Great Expectations”, but he’s basically a good soul who finds himself in all kinds of situations. But the reader is entertained by the supporting characters and the situations that Dickens comes up with. I have to admit that I chocked up quite a bit during the last few chapters – to me that’s a solid testament to the skill of the writer. For a book that long, I think Dickens did an excellent job.

What do you think of “David Copperfield” or Dickens in general? Do you think his approach to characters is a valid one, or do you consider it a cheat? What is the longest book that you’ve tackled, and why did it work (or not)?

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Other Side of the Coin – The Naked Sun

Last year I read Isaac Asimov’s “Caves of Steel”, an interesting combination of mystery and sci-fi. It was Asimov’s first novel length Robot themed work and to tell you the truth, I enjoyed it a great deal. Anyone who is not familiar with Asimov should give it a try. It’s very accessible and entertaining to boot.

Now I’ve read Asimov before. I’ve blogged about “The Gods Themselves” and read the Foundation trilogy in high school. So I was pretty familiar with his style and the way he weaves interesting science based themes into his work. “The Gods Themselves” did it in a way that was fairly obvious, but the story was engaging enough to keep the themes from disrupting the flow.

I can say that the two Robot Novels I’ve read, “Caves of Steel” and “The Naked Sun” are much more based in telling the story and having the themes play more of a background role. After all most mystery stories have to be plot based by their nature – otherwise the mystery ends up taking back seat to the thematic action. That’s what makes these two books easy to recommend to people who aren’t huge fans of science fiction. The mysteries are both compelling enough to make the story entertaining, and if they make you think outside of the story – well that’s just a great bonus.

“The Naked Sun” is really a solid companion novel to “Caves of Steel”. Sure you could read “Naked Sun” and enjoy it without reading “Caves of Steel” first, but they actually work together so well, that I really wish I had read the two books back to back. The Naked sun follows the protagonist of the first book, Elijah Bailey to the world of Solaris, where a murder has taken place. He is brought in to find the killer, and bring them to justice – simple enough right?

Well, Bailey has a few problems right from the start. Being from Earth, he’s not used to huge open spaces and wandering about on the surface of the world. In “Caves of Steel” we learn that humanity is living underground in densely populated mega-cities. Bailey is used to crowds of people and recycled air. The fact that Solaris is all open fields and huge mansions presents not only a huge culture shift for him, but actually makes it difficult for him to concentrate on the task at hand.

In addition the world is sparsely populated, but has an enormous robot to human ratio – something like 10,000 robots to every one person. On Earth robots are disliked and considered to be a necessary evil. On Solaris, they are a fact of life, built to serve and do whatever the Solarians ask.

While the mystery is still the focal point of the plot, it is the huge cultural differences that not only drive the story, but also provide for the themes of the book. The contrast between earth and Solaris is very obvious, but as Bailey attempts to untangle the mystery, he finds more and more that the differences between the two cultures shows strengths and weaknesses in each that he never considered before. And this leads into the final chapter of the book where Bailey realizes a truth about human kind and the fate of those on earth.

All in the all the book is a solid read, every bit as intriguing as “Caves of Steel”, if a little on the slower paced side. There isn’t much in the way of action in the novel, most of the interaction happens via view screen (Solarians refuse to see each other face to face and find such close contact abhorrent and obscene). But the mystery itself as well as the finding out bits of the culture as you search for clues with Bailey keeps you turning pages. The only downside for me was that the very interesting character of Robot Daneel Olivaw has a smaller role to play. While in “Caves of Steel” he was a main character and key to the investigation. In the “Naked Sun” he is removed from the story for a good third of the book. He plays a key role, but I missed his interaction with Bailey.

What “The Naked Sun” is an excellent example of is the fact that Asimov took his characters and situations from “Caves of Steel” and wrote a sequel that not only expanded and developed those ideas, but also made sure that “The Naked Sun” took the world concept into a new direction. This is actually a really impressive sequel – one that doesn’t rehash the previous book, but moves things in a new direction and provides a very interesting ending.

In his introduction to the book Asimov says that he felt that “The Naked Sun” was the perfect ending to his Robot series. I agree with him. He did end up writing a third book 25 years later called “Robots of Dawn”. I’m curious to read it, but I wonder if it was really necessary. “The Naked Sun” was a perfect ending for these characters and that world.

Have you read “The Naked Sun”? What did you think of it? Have you ever read a book or seen a movie that was a excellent sequel – one that took the established characters and situations and took them in a new direction (instead of just rehashing the story)?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Tragic Legacy – The Children of Hurin

Tolkien is considered the father of “High Fantasy” or fantasy stories based on the model of epic quests to save the world (as opposed to “Low Fantasy” or a series of adventures where the main character is more out for themselves). He created a vast detailed world that obviously resonates today not only to readers and writers, but the public at large now that “The Lord of the Rings” movies have come and gone.

So when more of his work comes to light, there plenty of fantasy fans who start salivating. This was the case for “Children of Hurin”, a work that was created from several different accounts written by J.R.R. Tolkien and compiled by his son. Reading the introduction you get a feel for the reason why the story was compiled in the first place – Tolkien felt that it was a key part of the world he created. It didn’t have the vast mythological view of “The Simarlillian” (a work I have yet to be able to get through, despite my love of mythology). And it wouldn’t be like the adventurous duo of “The Hobbit” or “Lord of the Rings”. Instead this fell somewhere in the middle, a solid hero legend.

For the most part you can’t tell that the work was a fusion of different sources. Tolkien does a good job of creating a linear flow to the work and smoothes over the rough patches with minimal interference. My only issue was the first chapter in which the amount of Tolkien-esque names was hurtling at me fast and furious and the whole chapter came across like an info dump. But after that chapter, the story got rolling and was very interesting. It was a solid mix of wanderings, chases, escapes, battles, love and doom.

Doom plays a huge role in the story and in the end makes the book feel very melancholy. Even “Lord of the Rings” has a feeling of sadness to it (what with the elves leaving and everyone running off to the Grey Havens at the end), but the final words of the book and the movie were with Sam, and he seemed to give you comfort that everything was all right.

“Children of Hurin” doesn’t go for the warm fuzzies. It’s main theme is about fighting fate and how fate or Doom if you prefer is too strong to completely break from. But the Doom in this case is powered by the malicious soul of Morgoth (the god-like being who was Sauron’s master). Once Morgoth sets his will against you there is nothing you can do to stop it. The protagonist, Turin, isn’t completely aware of this doom, but as we follow him we see its affects again and again. Still Turin does his best to live a life that he can be proud of and one that does a lot of good (even if it also causes a lot of harm). The story is an epic tragedy in a way, but one governed by the will of Morgoth – now the will of Turin.

How does this tie to “Lord of the Rings” especially since it happen centuries before the more famous story? It actually tells you more about the One Ring. Morgoth doesn’t even need a ring to impose his will. He merely thinks of cursing you and you are cursed. This focused malevolence is made very clear in the book and gives us an idea of how his servant Sauron could create the Ring. The focusing of the will of Sauron into the Ring is much like what Morgoth did in this story.

That said, I think Tolkien fans will find a lot to like in the book. It’s not one I may revisit often, but when I’m in a melancholy mood, or just looking for a Tolkien fix shorter than Lord of the Rings, this will be an easy one to pick up.

What did you think of “Children of Hurin”? What do you think of J.R.R. Tolkien? What do you make of the idea of fate or Doom? Do you ever address that idea in your stories?