29 November 2009

A Book Review

I started reading the Wheel of Time series almost twenty years ago.  I believe the fourth book in the series, The Shadow Rising, was just released in softcover when I picked up the series, which would mean I started it in 1993 or so, I believe.

Robert Jordan's series marks, for me, the beginning of a new era in fantasy literature.  Between the release of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and the first book of Jordan's series, The Eye of the World, there really is no truly epic fantasy.  With the release of Jordan's series, and the wild success of it, fantasy really came into it's own.  Thanks in large part to Jordan's success, we now have Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, Bakker's Prince of Nothing, Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, and countless others.

Sadly, Jordan passed away in 2007, with his grand vision incomplete.  After the release of the 11th book in the series, Knife of Dreams, fans were left wanting more.  Sadly, Jordan could not provide it.  However, he had copious notes, and had told the story to his wife, who was also his editor.  She finally chose Brandon Sanderson to complete the story, and provided him with all of the notes that Jordan had, and related the story to him, so that this tale, 20 years in the making, could finally be finished.

I admit that when I heard that Sanderson was going to complete the series, and that he was going to split the final volume into three books, I was worried.  I feared that he would not be able to do justice to Jordan's vision, that he would skew the story into areas that it should not go, and that he would take the opportunity to further his own career at the expense of Jordan's life-long work.

The release of the 12th book in the series, The Gathering Storm, was a moment of great excitement for me, as well as a moment of great trepidation.  I hesitated, and, unlike every other volume in the series, did not read it immediately upon purchase.  I was unsure.

I finished it last night, finally, and I have to say that my fears were completely unfounded.  Mr Sanderson has done a wonderful job, and has taken over Jordan's work with admirable skill.  At no point was I jarred with the change in style, and there were several moments that I completely forgot that it was a different author.  The characters were the same, the plots were picked up without a hitch, and the story progressed much as Jordan would have had it.

The story itself is good.  One of the best in the series.  Many of the plot threads were tied up in the previous volume, but many more are done so in this one.  Some major ones.  A war that has been coming for six books is completed in this volume, and done so in a way that made me hold my breath without realising it.  The final 200-300 pages of this volume are intense, and I found it very difficult to put the book down for more time than it took me to move from room to room.

In my many online discussions of this series, there are a few characters that stand out, in that most people absolutely hate them.  One of them, at least, is vindicated in this volume.  There are few characters in this series that I dislike, but I can easily see how this one, in particular, will regain the respect of the readers.

There are faults with this book, don't get me wrong.  Two characters, in particular, are completely missing, and I would have liked to have seen them pop up.  They are both mentioned several times, but they are among my favourites, and I would have liked to read more about them directly.  One, in particular, should have shown up late in the book, but did not.  There was a sequence toward the end that could have been handled much, much better had one person shown up instead of another, in my mind, but the way it played out will have ramifications through the next two volumes.

All in all, I place this one high on the list.  The series itself is very long, and very complex, so there are obvious low points in your enjoyment of the series.  Books 7, 8, and 10 are, admittedly, pretty terrible, as are parts of 2, 3, and 9, but the series as a whole is magnificent.  And, in this latest volume, one can see that there are reasons for those low points.  Some of the things that happened in those volumes are coming back, and remembering some of them now, with this latest book, raises my esteem of them somewhat.  There was a point where I seriously considered giving up on the series, and many people I know have done so, but I am glad I stuck with it, and I hope that some others will give it another shot.  The last two books have been well worth the wait.

23 November 2009

Proper English vs. Good English

There is a world of difference between proper, dictionary-based English, and proper conversational English.  About the same difference as there is between proper conversational English and the English that you hear most people use in conversation.

The English language is, for all intents and purposes, ridiculously complex.  Unnecessarily so.  But it is the complexity that makes me love it so, and also makes it  quite interesting.  Because, honestly, there’s a word for everything:

borborygmus (bor-buh-RIG-muhs) - noun; A rumbling noise caused by the movement of gas through the intestines.

And while some of you, like me, see a word like that, and can’t wait for the opportunity to use it in conversation (a friend of mine recently discovered sessile, and has been using it ever since. . . great word), most people aren’t going to be dropping that baby at the dinner table.

Proper English, that language your ancient teachers and tyrannical grandparents tried to instill in you, just isn’t used that often.  As well it shouldn’t.  Strict, rigid English should be reserved for legal documents, official decrees, things like that.  The sort of things where precise meaning, and I do mean precise, is necessary.

Conversational English, on the other hand, is a whole other beast.  It contains a much smaller vocabulary, but is used far more extensively.  Where, in a legal document, you need the exact word to describe what you mean, in conversational English any word will do, as long as it’s close, and your listeners understand what you mean.  Take borborygmus, for example.  Most people wouldn’t use that word, even if they knew it.  They’d say their stomach was gurgling, or that they were gassy.  Everybody would know what they meant, and, depending on the social setting, talk about their own bowels or shun the speaker completely, like a leper.

But the lack of constraint in conversational English is not a free pass.  It allows you to be lazy with your language, and take many, many shortcuts, but it still binds you to a lot of rules.  While it’s perfectly okay to say “I don’t wanna go to the store”, it is not okay to say “Store not go”.  Technically, while you’re getting the same points across, and both would make an eighteenth century governess weep for the future of mankind, the first gets your point across while maintaining at least a passing familiarity with grammatical rules and sentence structure.

While I’m on the subject, I want to take a moment to address something that mothers have been teaching their children for centuries.  Something that they have been getting wrong.  How many times have you heard a child say something akin to the following:

“Daddy took me and Billy to the pool today!”

Only to have their mother correct them with:

“No, Daddy took ‘Billy and I’ to the pool, honey.”?

Most times, that mother is correct.  This instance, however, is not one of those times.  She is teaching a bad lesson, and should be corrected herself.

In these particular situations, there is a pretty hard and fast rule for using ‘I’ over ‘me’.  Essentially, it boils down to one thing.  If you were alone, which would you use?  Use that one.  So, “Daddy took me to the pool today!” becomes “Daddy took me and Billy to the pool today!”  You wouldn’t say “Daddy took I to the pool today!”  That sounds ridiculous.  Similarly, “I went to the pool today, with Daddy!” becomes “Billy and I went to the pool today, with Daddy!”  It kind of flies in the face of countless reminders from your mother, and possibly your teachers, but once you get in the habit of it, it’ll become second nature.

09 November 2009

The Core of Stories

Every story is true.

You have to remember that.  No matter what happens in it, it's true.

I'm not talking about fact, or historical accuracy, or any of that.  I'm talking about truth.  Take Star Wars, for example.  True story.  Does that mean that in a galaxy far, far away, there was a domineering galactic empire, who controlled all of the star systems in the galaxy via a massive, planet-destroying space station?

No.  That's ridiculous.  But the story itself....

A small group of free-thinking individuals stands up in the face of insurmountable odds to fight for their own freedom and choices.  One man's search for a replacement for his lost family, and the legacy they have left behind.  A child's constant fight to be free of the chains his father has placed on him.

All of this is true.  It's something we live with every day.  It doesn't have to be on a grand scale; it could be the child who defies his parents' wishes to go to law school, and becomes an artist instead.  It could be a woman's demand that she be treated fairly in the workplace.  It could be an argument between spouses, over where they will be spending Christmas.  The scale doesn't matter.

What matters is that it's true.  It's real, and, when you peel away all of the flash and the exaggerated plots, there is a kernel of purity there that people can relate to, can understand.

It's the most important realisation you can come to as a writer, and it will elevate your stories to a new level.

Every story is true.

06 November 2009

Folklore, and The Ridiculous Premise

Writing a story, is, at it's heart, an accepted way to lie to people.  You make shit up, and tell it to them as if it really happened, and they accept that.  Everybody knows this, but nobody really talks about it.  Even those so-called 'true stories' are fabricated to a certain extent.

Some people don't like to admit it, and lash out when it's thrown in their face.  Like Oprah did to James Frey.  Twice.  Fuck, I hate that woman.

Regardless, writers lie to people, and people pay them to do it.  But there has to be some layer of truth to your story.  You have to follow the basic rules of the world, or find a way to explain them so that the reader will accept the changes.  Alligators can't speak English, and toes are not intelligent, individual beings.  These are fundamentals, and you'd better have a good reason for breaking them.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  The Ridiculous Premise.  Have you ever read a really good book, and recommended it to a friend, only to have them ask you, "What's it about?"

You stall, and you think about it, and finally, sheepishly, tell them that it's about a guy who takes a lot of drugs, goes to Vegas to write a magazine story about a desert race, and proceeds to get completely lost in a fugue state of self-medication, paranoia, and petty lawlessness.

Sounds rather juvenile, yes?  That's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Great, great book.  But you have to be honest, the premise is kind of.... well, ridiculous.

The great thing about this whole concept is, it doesn't matter what your story is about, what matters is how it is written.  Also, very important, is that you have some explanation as to why the ridiculous is happening.  It doesn't have to be a solid explanation, but as long as the reader can accept it, you're golden.

There are millions of stories and legends from around the world that can help you with this.  Everyone knows that vampires can't come into your house uninvited, but how many know that they can't pass any doorway if it is lined with salt?  How many people know that a broom falling in the house means that company is coming, and not likely welcome company?

Everyone knows about Fairy Rings, mushroom patches in circular shapes, but not many know that in some Austrian areas, it is believed that dragons make them, and once one is made, nothing but toadstools will grow there for seven years, or that the Dutch believe they are where the devil puts his milk churn?  I'm guessing, outside of Austria or the Netherlands, not many do.

Enough people will catch it, though, to validate your story, and the mythology that you are creating.  Others will look into it, and confirm your statements independently.  Still others will believe you out of hand, and spread the tale themselves.  The point is, you've taken something old and not widely known, and used it to hold your ideas together, and tie them to the world that your readers understand.

Any time a story is read, there is an unspoken agreement made between the reader and the author.  The author agrees to tell a story that the reader will be able to follow and understand, and the reader agrees to suspend his disbelief enough to accept the tale as it is told.  If one side or the other breaks that agreement, or pushes it too far, it will end up as an unpleasant experience.  How many books have you set aside, unfinished, because you simply did not enjoy them?  How many of those did you not enjoy simply because you couldn't believe the premise, or the actions of the characters?  Either the writer pushed you too hard, you couldn't extend your disbelief far enough, or, in some cases, there was just a unconquerable disparity between what you believe the boundaries are, and what the author believes them to be.  It's unfortunate, but it happens.

03 November 2009

The Dread Spectre

Unless you're Chuck Palahniuk, it'll happen to you eventually.  Probably quite often.  You'll sit down to continue working on your piece, and you can't get going.

You'll be halfway through, and it's coming along swimmingly, and all of a sudden it's like you can't form a complete sentence.

It's frustrating as hell, and more than a little discouraging.  It's called writer's block, and it happens to just about everybody.  There are few worse feelings in the world than the one that comes over you, when you realise that you're stuck.

There's no rhyme or reason to it.  At no point in your story can you see it coming, and no point in anybody else's story where you can see that it happened.  It just does, and it kicks you in the balls.

A lot of people have their own cures for the affliction (and affliction it is, make no mistake; I'd pay my entire life savings to the doctor who finds a cure for it), and while some work, most don't.  I've tried them all.  I've tried starting a new story, I've tried writing about nonsense, I've tried reading a book, and I've tried forcing myself to continue regardless with the plan to fix it in editing.

It doesn't work.

Sadly, the only thing that works for me is waiting it out.  Sometimes this means a project will sit idle for a few days, sometimes it's months.  There's nothing for it.

The flip side of this, however, is that when it comes back to you...  oh, when it comes back....

Some of your best work will be in the furious few days after you get past a block.  It's almost as if the creative juices have to build up, past their normal levels, and explode in a torrent all at once before subsiding back to normalcy.

So, be patient.  It'll happen.  You'll get out of your slump, and put down some of your best work.  Which doesn't help your mood when you're in the middle of that funk, but it makes you feel a whole lot better about it being done.