Sunday, January 30, 2011

On the Eve of a Beginning

First off, sorry that you haven't seen the book reviews yet. They're taking somewhat longer than I would have liked. (I may need to pare them down a bit.)

In other, slightly more relevant news, I am beginning school tomorrow. Finally.

We're starting things off with "Narrative, Character, and Voice," which are all topics I certainly need to work on.

I'm really looking forward to this semester. I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before or not. Kingston University offers a number of focused, creative writing classes that Truman simply doesn't. So I hope I'll be able to learn a lot about my chosen craft this semester. I think it'll help that Kingston -- and the British school system in general -- seems much more focused on practical skills and preparing you for the working world and etc. It seems to me that such an approach to education makes the whole experience a lot more applicable.

But we'll see. After all, I have yet to set foot in a classroom.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Reading Non-Fiction

Today I started reading A Short History of the World, by J.M. Roberts.

History is one of those things that I have a growing and occasional fascination with. I'll read a history book on a whim and I'll find the entire subject even more enlightening than the last time I studied it. I'll make a new connection or realization about the whole big-picture connectedness of the thing, or notice some similarity with current events or other past events or even fictitious events. It's one of those subjects that exemplifies the concept of growing more rewarding the more you learn about it (and not in the cheap math way of not allowing you to do certain problems until you've learned other types of math.)

It's like the more I read history the more I'm filling in blank spaces on a map. It's the same for my writing: the more I work on a particular novel or world, the more I'm painting in the empty spaces of a canvas. The beauty of the universe unfolds before me as the different pieces fall into place to reveal one glorious image.

Beyond this, reading non-fiction of almost any kind forces my mind to work in subtly different ways than it does when reading fiction. It's like stretching a different group of muscles. You may not have noticed the tension before, but once you've changed positions you realize how sore and out-of-practice you were. The amazing thing, though, is that this subtle change in my mental exercise helps the other areas of my brain grow as well.

I'm sure any long-term writer would tell you that you can't just read fiction. Yes, reading fiction is important for a variety of reasons (stimulates the imagination, inspires you with technique, informs you as to the market, etc.) but that's not going to get you very far. Variety is important. Like a well-balanced meal. Adding some non-fiction to your reading diet brings a whole new wealth of inspiration and information that can be applied to writing. If only for examining the different ways that other styles of writing use words and create meaning, reading non-fiction (or, quite simply, changing your reading habits somewhat) intently can have huge unforseen benefits for your writing.

I should know. I can't count the number of breakthroughs I've had on stories that I thought had become stale by reading through a non-fiction book. Or the number of stories that I've had pop into my mind while reading some history.

Reading outside your comfort zone (like doing anything outside your comfort zone) allows your well-worn mental paths to rest, enabling them to develop ideas sub-consciously, leading to a greater level of inspiration than you could have designed.

At least in my experience. :)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Coming Up: Book Reviews, Quotes, London, and Blog Notes

Now that I'm beginning to settle in more fully up here in London, I thought I'd take a minute to give a preview of my upcoming posts for the rest of the month, as well as on into the rest of the semester.

First of all, I am long-finished with Warbreaker. I just haven't had time with the traveling and everything to write up my review. It should be posted by the end of the week. By that time, I will also have finished The Truth, by Terry Pratchett. So a review of that shouldn't be long in coming either.

Yeah, I know. The Truth wasn't on the initial reading list. Well, I said that list would be derailed, didn't I?

The story: a few days before I left the country, I stopped by my local library to drop some stuff off and I found a 25 cent book bin. Usually, when I take the time to check these, there isn't much worth mentioning. I always manage to find a book or two that I've either heard about or that spark my interest. But nothing spectacular or anything.

Well, that day, I found The Truth.

A footnote to this story: a few days before I went to the library (it may have been the night before, actually) I found a comment from Brandon Sanderson on Twitter where he said that The Truth was his favorite Pratchett. So, naturally, an endorsement from Brandon Sanderson is enough to get me to buy the book.

So that was that. I've been reading it at a rather leisurely pace for the past week and a half, and I should be finished any day now.

In a similar vein, today we stopped at the Surbiton Public Library. Now, neither of us has a library card yet, but we wanted to stop and look around anyway. (It's a very nice looking library. I'll have to take a picture next time.)

Within, I found a fantastic book about the use of rings in literary symbolism, specifically the history that Tolkien drew upon for his The Lord of the Rings. When I finally get a library card, I'm probably going to check that out, as ring as an object have always fascinated me and as a literary device they continue to draw me to using them (though I haven't really done so recently).

More relevantly, I found a cluster of shelves with books for sale. 20 pence each.

So... yeah, here's what I got:

 So, from right to left, we have:
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
Naked Empire, by Terry Goodkind
Metal Fatigue, by Sean Williams
Crossroads of Twilight: Book Ten of the Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan
Knife of Dreams: Book Eleven of the Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan

Here's the quick rundown:
Lies: Fantasy-heist story promoted to me as "just as good as Mistborn" by a close friend; we'll see if she's right.
Empire: I've never read Terry Goodkind, or Terry Brooks, or any of the other giants of epic fantasy from the pre- and early-90s; so I figure I should. Naked Empire is a standalone epic fantasy that Goodkind wrote following his Sword of Truth series. So we'll see how good it is.
(Note: I have this long-standing presupposition that just about every popular epic fantasy written between Tolkien and the 21st century is basically just bad Tolkien clones. There are, of course, exceptions. We're going to see if Goodkind is one of those, or even that I might be proven wrong.)
Fatigue: This is the one I'm taking the biggest chance on, in my mind. It's sci-fi. And I'm not as well-versed in sci-fi, despite my desire to dabble in it at some point in the future. Of course, I love the concept of sci-fi -- and the whole "imagining the future" concept to fiction. I just haven't made reading sci-fi as much of a priority as I have the fantasy. In addition, what little sci-fi I do read (outside of Star Wars, of course) I sometimes find difficult to get into because of it's often high-concept approach. (On the one hand, I love your detailed world-building and the depth of your knowledge about this "cutting-edge" scientific concept. I find it interesting, I really do. That being said, on the other hand, I just want to read a good story. I don't want you to preach to me about the wonders of X technology or whatever; and I definitely don't want you to tell me how horrible our current society is and how either a) We're going to end up in a living hell in the future because of what we're doing today, or b) We need to turn things around so we can be as great as this perfect Star Trek society that you're depicting. *ahem* Apologies. My bias against Sci-fi, much like my bias against early epic fantasy, should probably be discussed at another point in time.) Back to Metal Fatigue. This one is an award winner, it's concept sounds interesting, and it's written by one of the authors from the New Jedi Order series of Star Wars books (which, I'll admit, isn't much of a recommendation, but I'll take it + an Australian literature award over a bunch of unknowns). So, yeah, a brief foray into Science Fiction territory. We'll see how it goes.
The Wheel of Time books: These are the last two books before Brandon Sanderson picked up the series; they're also the only two books not currently included in a paperback boxed set. So, as soon as I get the Books 7-9 boxed set, I'll be set to read the whole series from start to finish next fall. (Well, I'll have to wait for the spring, when Sanderson publishes A Memory of Light, but I can at least get through what Robert Jordan wrote without having to stop and look for them at the library or anything). Also, I really like these British covers. For all the books.
I'll have to post larger pictures later.

Moving right along beyond the reading list.

I'm going to try posting a selection of quotes on writing (and life in general) near the end of each month. So keep an eye out for that. We'll see how it goes.

I've been taking pictures during my time here in London, though I haven't been here long yet. I'm going to try making a point of giving at least one London update a week, and probably include some pictures with it. I know I didn't have any with the first London post, so I'll try to get those up in a separate post sometime this week.

As a final note for this "end of the month" stuff, I've been following a number of blogs somewhat randomly. Several have jumped out at me, while others have kind of faded into obscurity. It was difficult to choose one to follow for an entire month, so I'm just going to post links to some of my favorite articles that I've read during the past month. We'll see how that goes, and I'll try proving myself more dedicated during the months to come.

Alright, that's all for now. The writing has started back up again. We're currently sitting at 19,500 words out of our projected goal of 500k. I budgeted 20k words for this month, so we're right no track, but the pace is going to have to double soon if I hope to reach the goal.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Journey

Having completed the grand journey from St. Louis to London, and having now settled into my accommodations in Surrey, I think it's time to present a record of the event. (I'll get back to the book reviews and such soon, don't worry.)

Thursday, 20th Januray 2011

0500 -- Wake up. Train to Chicago leaves at 0725, but we'll need to get there early to get our tickets (we reserved them online).
0511 -- Eat breakfast. Eggs and toast, prepared by my father. A very hearty meal, which I'm thankful for, as I'm not sure when the next time will be that I can eat.
0528 -- Finish packing. I had, of course, finished packing the night before. But when I woke up I remembered a few items that needed to come along, so I found a way to shove those into my suitcase as well.
0545 -- Finish packing, again. And then I remembered a few things that needed to be shoved into my backpack, so I proceeded to make space for them as well.
0547 -- Say goodbye to my brother, who was still half-asleep at the time.
0553 -- Depart for the railway station. A bit later than we would have liked, as it's about 30 mins away, but should still put us there with sufficient time before the train arrives. (The paranoia, in case you are wondering, comes from a trip I took to Chicago one other time via train. When I arrived at Union station to return home, I found that my train's departure had been moved a half-hour earlier. Fortunately, I was early.)
0620 -- Pass the statue of Robert Wadlow, the Alton Giant.
0621 -- Arrive at the train station. Naturally, we discover that the ticket booth doesn't open until 0630. So we had nothing to fear.
0633 -- Ticket in hand, waiting for the train.
0637 -- Lauren and her dad arrive. The journey will soon commence. soon as the train gets here.

0742 -- Train arrives.
0743 -- Train departs.

Yes, they really are that quick on the pickup.

1227 -- Train arrives in Chicago. Now begins the fun part. We're up in a major city, without our parents, trying to reach and navigate two of the most infamously complicated (or at least difficult to deal with) airports in the world. Yes, we're adults, but it's still scary to do it alone.
1308 -- Stop for food at McDonald's. Ritzy, I know. And you thought travelling was glamorous.
1427 -- Board subway for O'Hare. This was a bit of a surprise, and I'm disappointed that I didn't take pictures. As I said earlier, I've been to Chicago before. And for those of you who don't know, Chicago has a great public transit system. Most of this system is comprised of elevated trains, with some decent bus routes as well. This train, however, was a subway, which surprised me quite a bit. (I don't know why.) It's a good thing we asked for directions or we could have wandered for some time looking for the Blue Line.

Now the airport-shuffle begins. To give a brief overview: we needed to travel to Chicago because our flight left from there. That flight, however, did not get us to London. It got us to Copenhagen, where we had to board another flight to get into London. Why did we do this circuitous and time-consuming route?
Easy. It was cheaper this way.

1504 -- Arrive at O'Hare Airport. For those keeping track, this means we've been in travel mode for ten hours. (For those of you who don't know what travel mode is... well, I'll find a suitable metaphor at some point. For now, understand that you can be in travel mode, mentally, even if you aren't presently going anywhere, physically. It involves a sense of not having a place to belong, while also having to navigate logistics, which can be really draining mentally and emotionally [not to mention the whole "no sleep" thing]).
1541 -- Pick up tickets. A nice indication of both the size and complexity of O'Hare. Yes, it really did take us over half an hour to get from the subway to the international terminal. First we had to find our way into the main airport building, find where our flight provider (SAS [Scandinavian Air Services]) had its service desk, ride a tram around to the international terminal, and then search among the fifteen or so desks for SAS. After that, receiving our ticket was easy. We weren't even overweight on our luggage (a constant fear when we were packing).
1556 -- Stop at food court to relax. We thought about going through security, but there's no food on the other side of security. Although we weren't hungry quite yet, we knew it was a possibility, so we decided to hang out on the outside of security in case we wanted to eat something. We did. It was a lovely overpriced chicken salad and fruit smoothie.
1739 -- Walk through security. Yes, walk. We didn't have a problem at all. The most trouble Chicago's security gave me was asking me to lie my backpack on its back, instead of standing up. No problem.
1903 -- Clear credit cards for travel. Don't use credit cards while overseas. Just don't. Unless you have a really special, international-plan card or something, the fees you pay are just too expensive to use them on a regular basis (which you will need to do for any kind of travelling). The other thing is that there are a lot of smaller shops and street vendors that you'll probably be stopping at, and they probably won't accept credit, so cash is usually the best way to go.
That being said, it's good to have them for an emergency. And in order so that your company doesn't block you when it sees a domestic card being used overseas (thinking it's an identity thief or something) you'll need to call ahead and let them know when, where, and for how long you'll be travelling. Now, I'll admit, this is something I should've done days ago. I just... didn't. So I had to call from the airport.
2011 -- Plane appears at the gate. For those following along at home, this marks 15 hours in travel mode. We can feel it beginning to wear on us by now.
2108 -- Early boarding begins. This means the elderly, first class, and parents with young children. You know, the folks who are either special or take a while to get themselves situated.
2121 -- We're on the plane.

At this point, the next eight hours are a combination of food, sleep, and reading. So there's not much to report. In addition, we switched our clocks to match London time (which is six hours ahead of Chicago time) so from now on I'm going to list the Chicago time with the London time in parenthesis, so you can get a feel for how our internal clocks felt versus how the world needed us to feel at the time.

0356 [0956] -- Wake up from a (maybe) two-hour nap for breakfast. This airline was fantastic, by the way. They had great service, wonderful accommodations, and the served us two meals. I think we're going to try to get them for the return flight. If it's as good as this one was, then I'd definitely recommend that everyone fly SAS for their overseas journeys.
0544 [1144] -- Arrive in Copenhagen. Another fantastic feature about the airline: we were over 40 mins early. This gave us about two hours before our next flight left. Another note on the time: over 24 hours in travel mode by now.
0602 [1202] -- Find gate for London. Something that I wasn't expecting when changing flights: going through security again. I figured, since we had to go through security to get on the first plane, then we wouldn't have to worry about it when switching to another one. Apparently that's not the case in Denmark. Also, this one took us a bit longer because they were meticulous about checking our liquids. Lauren's small packages of soap and such were scrutinized, and they double-checked my alcohol from the duty-free store to make sure it was still sealed. After that... well, it was a slightly confusing trek to find the departure location for our London flight, but nothing extensive.

0731 [1331] -- Board plane to London.
0756 [1356] -- Plane takes off for London.
1007 [1607] -- Land at Heathrow Airpoart in London. Once again, about half an hour early.
1017 [1617] -- Get off the plane. Heh, one disadvantage to being early is that, sometimes, the airport isn't ready for you. So we had to wait on the runway for a few minutes while the flight ahead of us pulled away from the gate. Wasn't too bad, though.

1032 [1632] -- Through border control. Here we are. The moment we've been most anxious about since we started this journey. It doesn't matter that we've been travelling for 29 and 1/2 hours. It doesn't matter that we've made every flight and train and connection and worked out all the logistics. It doesn't even matter that we have a place to stay, really. If these guys say no, we don't get in. It's that simple.
Well, clearly, we got in. And, quite frankly, all that worry was for nothing. The man looked at our passports, asked us a couple questions about school (they sounded more like curiosity than actual inquiries) and then he sent us on our way. No paperwork; no interrogations. Nothing.
Of course, if we hadn't done all the preparation, then naturally he would have asked for some document or another that we had forgotten. That's just the way this world works.

1055 [1655] -- Arrive at bus station. Even though we've come all this way, and have been travelling for almost 30 hours, we still have to figure out how to get to Tollworth Road, Surrey. This was, probably, the most frustrating part of the whole trek. We feel like we've been going for so long and have come so far; we're so close. But there's just this last little bit of distance to cover and we can't find any good way to do it. Rather than trying to be especially smart, we just asked for help and the folks at the bus depot hooked us up with a route via bus to a train station where we could then take the train up to another station from which we could reach our destination. It seemed like a lot, but we were just a bit too tired to figure out a better solution.
1118 [1718] -- Bus to Woking station arrives.
1130 [1730] -- We board bus to Woking. Naturally, our bus had to change drivers, which only increased our impatience.
1133 [1733] -- Bus departs for Woking station. The bus made up for it, though, by being warm, leaving quickly, and having a driver that looked like Professor Benevento (always nice to see a familiar face, even if it isn't someone you know).
1148 [1748] -- Heathrow Airport is out of sight as we board the expressway.

1224 [1824] -- Arrive at Woking station.
1253 [1853] -- Train to Waterloo arrives. We board it.
1308 [1906] -- Train arrives at Surbiton.

By now, we've been in travel mode for 32 hours, and it's been about nine hours since we've had any real food. We're tired, we don't know where we are or where we're going. We spend ten minutes looking at a map before deciding that it just simply isn't worth the trouble.

1317 [1917] -- Get in taxi.
1326 [1926] -- Arrive.

End Travel Mode.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Arriving in England

Well, that's the end of that.

I'm in England now, in my room for the next five months.

This ends a thirty-two hour journey.

I'm going to go to sleep now, and talk about the trip a bit later.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Well... here we go.

I leave for England in the morning. As such, I will be somewhat silent for the next few days. It's going to be a 26+ hour journey, and that's if we do everything right.

Once I'm done, I'll try to post a recap of the trek. Until then, however, please bear with my absence.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On Literary Analysis

Alright, so before I get too much farther into the year (and the subsequent book/movie reviews), I want to take a few minutes to talk about a few core concepts of storytelling and it's subsequent criticism. These are ideas that I will be referring to often over the next few months, so I recommend reading this post to brush up on some of the earliest lessons of creative writing in order to follow along with the coming blog posts.

Okay, here we go.

As any basic creative writing instructor (or student) will tell you, there are (traditionally) four elements that make up a story.

1. Plot, the stuff that happens.
2. Character, the people who do the stuff (or the people that the stuff happens to.)
3. Setting, the place where the people live and the stuff happens.
4. Perspective/Voice, the way in which the stuff about the people is told.

In addition, any basic teaching on structure will tell you that modern storytelling identifies three acts within each story.

First Act: Introduction/set-up; this is the place where the author establishes characters and posits a problem of some kind.
Second Act: Wacky hijinks/development; usually, this is the place where all the interesting stuff happens, and some of the initial plot twists occur.
Third Act: Finale; this is where we find our final plot twists and our heroes solve the problem introduced in the first act (except in epics or especially twisty works where solving the initial problem [or even trying to solve it] just reveals more problems that need to be solved until you're led to averting WWIII or something similar.)

For the academics in the crowd, this can be understood as:
1st, Introduction of thesis.
2nd, Body of argument.
3rd, Conclusion of evidence.
(Really, stories do work like this. Go check it out. I'll wait.)

Alright, does everyone have the basics down now? Okay, now a few caveats.

1. I will only ever discuss plot, character, and setting when I do a review. Occasionally I'll touch on voice or technique if the author's use of it made a particular impression on me or I thought it was really important to the book/movie/whatever. For the most part, however, I'm going to avoid it.
Because I don't consider myself particularly proficient in this area to analyze or critique it effectively. True, a majority of my current works are focusing on interesting/alternative narrative styles, but that's likely more of a by-product from my lack of skill than anything else. (Me not knowing what I'm doing drives me to practice, basically.)

2. I'll be using my own terms for the core storytelling structure, borrowed from Christopher Nolan's 2006 film The Prestige. (If you haven't seen it, go watch it. I'll wait. [Actually, even if you have seen it, go watch it again. I'll still wait.]) So, we have:
-The Pledge, when the author makes a major promise to the reader.
-The Turn, when something surprising changes about that core promise.
-The Prestige, when everything we've learned about that promise comes together in the end.
Now, this approach involves more than simple linguistic preference. In the books that I like to read (and eventually would like to write), there are often a number of plot threads all weaving in and out and around each other. It becomes very difficult to identify one, core, central "storyline." There can be as many as three, or five, or seven, or eight storylines all going at the same time, eventually convalescing into one, unified ending (usually). For this purpose, I like to analyze separate storylines as though they are each an individual story, noting where they contribute to the main plot.
Thus, there can be multiple Pledges and Turns within a book, though there is seldom more than one or two Prestige. Even though I could break down the separate stories into their own "Act One," "Act Two," "Act Three," I like to use this terminology as it more directly reflects the purpose of structural analysis, as well as the three most important elements of plot.

Beyond those two points, I'm toying with attempting to analyze all storylines within the confines of a five-act structure (the structure most famously adopted by the likes of the Roman tragedians and William Shakespeare, as well as other Early Modern playwrights). But that's still an embryonic idea, so we'll worry about that later. For now, though, when you see me use these terms, you'll hopefully know what I'm talking about.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Magic Systems, concluded

As before, SPOILERS.

We technically have only one magic system going on here, but it manifests itself in several facets, so there are actually a few things to keep track of. There's Awakening, the Returned, BioChromatic Breath (which is technically a part of both of those), Nightblood, the Lifeless, etc. It's all interconnected, yet they all have their own little subsets of rules. I'm not going to try to summarize it all for you, as it's much better for you to simply read the book.
What I like: The interconnected nature of the system, as I mentioned above, is very well handled. Sure, in Mistborn, the different magic systems could influence each other, but they didn't have the same sense of cohesion. Yeah, in Elantris, the (supposedly) different magic systems all (supposedly) derive their power from the same source, but you hardly were given enough time to get to know the main system, so it never really felt that it was all one big happy family at all. In this, Sanderson does a good job of teaching us the core principle (collecting the Breaths of other people in order to gain power) and then slowly reveals the wide variety of ways that this system either a) Influences society, or b) Can be used to create magical effects.
The clear delineation of power. I know Sanderson complained in an interview or a podcast or something that, at one point in the writing process, this magic system felt too "video gamey," because the Breath system felt like trying to track a mana bar. For me, though, this was one of the elements I liked about it. Being able to clearly indicate, "Okay, this guy is more powerful (magically speaking) than that guy." It wasn't distracting, it was informative. (And, I realize, that this is largely due to Sanderson's skill in handling the descriptions of this system and its effects. If it had literally read: "Vasher had 2,000 breaths. Vivenna had 300. Vasher beat Vivenna." Then, yeah, that would have been lame and just a bit too statistical/DBZ/RPG/video gamey.) What made this kind of measuring system work, is that it still came down to character knowledge. Vivenna spent the majority of the novel filled with more powerful magic levels than anyone around her, move even than the people who were opposing her. But because she refused to learn how to use her power, it didn't matter. Similarly, when Vasher fought Denth, Vasher was able to win because he was more knowledgeable and skilled at using the magic than Denth was (that was one of my favorite moments, by the way. More on that when I get around to my full review of Warbreaker). I think, these days, the majority of people who read fantasy are kids who have grown up playing video games (or watching DBZ), so they're familiar with this kind of "measurable" system for their magic. And if not this current generation of fantasy readers, than certainly the next generation. Does that mean that I think we should boil our fights down to "He has fighting skill 7; she has fighting skill 12. She wins." or something similar? ("He's over 9000!") No. Of course not. That'd be stupid and completely devoid of any creative merit. But I do think that readers are growing more and more comfortable with this kind of a system, to the point that we may even see "Magic points" showing up (in a far more abstract form, of course) in future novels. ~shrug~ Who knows. I certainly enjoyed marveling at the wealth (or lack thereof) of power that each character gathered at various points in the story, comparing their relative power levels and access to specific abilities using the Ars Arcanum in the back of the book. It actually helped me to get into the story more.
What's not so great: Inconsistencies, mostly. I know Sanderson mentions this in his annotations (which are fantastic, by the way. I'll probably talk about them in a future post). He goes to such lengths to describe how difficult it is to Awaken things -- the specific steps that need to be taken, the large amount of breath required to do so -- and yet, after the prologue, it doesn't ever matter. There are a few, very specific instances where characters make mistakes and end up losing some of their breath, and yet even that great of a blow to them never seems to have any impact. So a part of me is thinking, "Wow, missed opportunity there. He could have really upped the dramatic tension in a few places by making the characters unable to do some things, yet still able to Awaken to a degree." While another part of me is thinking, "Wait. If it takes 25ish breaths to awaken a little straw man that has been shaped ever so carefully, then how is this character able to awaken so many things that don't have the shape of a man when they have 1,000ish without expending all of their breath? I would think there would be exponential increases, etc. etc. etc." My (underused) mathematician brain gets working and tries to figure out the system even more than what I've been told. So, yes, I didn't feel as though the system was used to its fullest potential within the story. Did that make the story bad? No. Sanderson always tells a fantastic story and never uses his magics to their fullest extent. It's about the characters. I get that. But still... missed opportunities. Inconsistencies. Logic breaks down eventually.

(NOTE: In case you were wondering, I'm skipping the Alcatraz books and the Wheel of Time books. First, because the magic systems aren't as prominently defined in those books, so far as I can tell. And second, because I haven't actually read all of them yet.)

The Way of Kings
This is the trickiest one to talk about, because it's the first in a series of ten. So we're really stretching our bounds of comprehension. None of the magic systems have been spelled out for us yet, though we have been able to learn quite a bit from what we've observed and the few things we've been told in the text. In addition, there are at least four magic systems currently recognized in the series, though at least three of them are likely interconnected. So, in conclusion, there isn't too much I can or want to say about this series yet, but I will mention a few things.
What I like: Stormlight. Clear source of power with an awesome aesthetic, yet also has in-world dangers for obtaining it. Very cool.
Shardplate. Robot suits for the magical world! Yes! These are a lot of fun, as I always like things that level the playing field (though not too much). Granted, it does get into the territory of making your characters overpowered (a middle-aged man is just about the most dangerous warrior in the land because the shardplate is able to make him fight with the strength and speed of a youth), but ever-clever Sanderson makes up for this by giving the characters other weaknesses. Also, in this case, the shardplate lets us put an emphasis on skill over speed or strength, which is also always a plus in my book.
Shardblades. Magic swords! By the dozens! But these are more than just magic swords. These swords have very, very, very specific properties in regards to what they can do and how you can use them, etc. They're almost more a piece of technology than any kind of ancient mystic relic.
What's not so great: Soulcasting. Granted, we don't know much about this yet. It's more than likely that by the time I've read the second book (when it comes out in 2012, or whatever), I'll have a completely different opinion about this magic. For now, though, I'm a bit disappointed. Although there have been hints that using this power is extremely dangerous and (more importantly) that there is some kind of cost involved in using it, those things haven't been laid out yet for us. Right now, to me, it just seems like an easy excuse for creating free food, but without any of the logical benefits (why does Kaladin's village need to farm again? Can't they just make more food? I think they talked about this somewhere in the book, but it must not have been a very convincing answer.) So, yeah, without explaining why the soulcasters and whatever haven't solved world hunger, I'm going to need a bit more convincing on this one.

Alright, that's it on Sanderson's magic systems. I'm sure I'll spend some time talking about magic systems in general at some point. For now, though, I need to think about my reactions to Warbreaker, as well as start reading the next book on my list.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

On Magic Systems, continued

NOTE: I suppose it should have been mentioned, but if you are planning on reading any of Sanderson's books and want to avoid spoilers, you probably shouldn't be reading these posts. You have been warned.

Alright, where did I leave off?

Mistborn Trilogy
Probably the most intriguing of the Mistborn magic systems. Feruchemy involves draining yourself of a certain attribute now (like strength, age, eyesight, or memories) in order to store that much of it in metal jewelry (essentially). Then, when you want to access it again, you can do so and gain a much needed boost to your naturally-endowed abilities.
What I like: Much better cost system than allomancy. I know I talked about how I liked allomancy's clear power source, but there's little actual cost in it. With feruchemy, you're actually investing a part of yourself in the magic. That makes it feel really tangible, and it creates even more precisely-defined limits on the power source.
What's not so great: Lineage. This goes for allomancy as well, in fact. I'm not a big fan of magic systems that are limited by bloodline. Now, they have their place and can be used well (as is the case here), but more often than not, authors limit their magic by lineage for convenience. Do you want only the chosen hero of the land to have magic? Okay, make it limited to his bloodline. Do you want just the king to have magic? Okay, limit it to his bloodline (although then you have some pesky heirs and cousins and distant bastard uncles to deal with, if you're being true to your world). Do you want these five characters to have access to magical powers without any reason or explanation for why or where the magic comes from and do you not want to worry about answer the question "why don't other characters learn the magic to challenge them?" Okay, say it's limited to bloodline.
Again, there are a lot of ways to do this well. But it seems to me that lineage is used more often as a part of lazy world building and storytelling, rather than as a dynamic source of conflict (or plot element) or as a compelling piece of lore enriching the world. So yeah, much as with the whole rant about the Force in Elantris. Feruchemy (and allomancy) loses points for ascribing to the lineage trope (even though it's used well here).
This is the one we know the least about. It's the most "evil" of the three Mistborn magic systems, as it involves shoving metal spikes through sensitive parts of a person's body (often after killing another person, I think). It's a bit unclear, as I recall, what effects hemalurgy creates, but I know it's often related to enhancing allomantic powers. The main purpose of hemalurgy, however, is its use in creating the monstrous servants of the Lord Ruler (the Koloss and the Steel Inquisitors.)
What I like: Mystery. There's really not a whole lot that I can say about hemalurgy, seeing as it's role is mostly in the background of the books, but one advantage that this background role gives this system is it's sense of unease and aura of mystery. You don't even know it exists for the first half of the series, and even once you do learn a few hints of how it works (thus making sense of about half a dozen scenes from earlier in the series)  you are still left wondering as to the specifics. A few details seep out (arriving as they are discovered by our heroes, who are not the type to dabble in this form of magic), but we don't really learn any more than we need to in order to understand the smallest and most specific details of what is going on, rather than the big picture.
And I like this. It doesn't work as well when you try to do this with your main magic system (though there are exceptions, as with anything), but for a tertiary system like this, especially one used primarily by the series' villains, it adds a wonderful sense of the world being bigger than what we see in these few years of it's life. (By the way, this is one of the things that Sanderson does best. He tells a really compelling story from the world's history, but it's very clear by the end of it that you still don't know everything there is to know. Sometimes you aren't even sure if you know the most important things about the world. You just know the things you need to know in order to care about the conflict of the characters you're learning to love. It's both refreshing and infuriating.)
What's not so great: It's really hard to say, quite frankly, as we don't know a whole lot about the system. For that reason, I'm probably just going to leave this one empty for now. If more information about hemalurgy is revealed in later Mistborn books, I may revisit this topic in a later post.

Wrapping things up tomorrow.

Friday, January 14, 2011

On Magic Systems

Back to Brandon Sanderson today. I would apologize for all the attention I'm giving him, but I really do love his books. (Also, we're heading into the climax of Warbreaker, so the storm that is a Sanderson ending is about to break.)

Today I'd like to talk a bit about magic. I'll probably do a post later on in this year about magic's overall role in fiction, but today I'm just going to examine what I like (and maybe dislike) about Sanderson's systems. The goal here is to formulate some general trends to adopt for my own (eventual and various) magic systems.

This is the one he stole from me. Except not.
Around the time I read Elantris, I had been thinking about magic and its portrayal in fiction and how I might assign rules or otherwise explain how it works. Being a reader and writer and otherwise rather fond of words, I devised a system wherein you write out what you want to happen (in fully-formed sentences, using a magic pencil that can draw lines in the air) in order to create an effect.
Then I read Elantris.
Then I mentally kicked myself. (Note: This happens a lot when I read Sanderson's work. I'll probably talk about that in a couple of days.)
Anyway, humorous anecdotes out of the way, let's talk about magic.
What I like: As I said, the writing idea was one I had been working on myself, so I'm definitely a fan. Any kind of symbol usage in a magic system gets my interest. I don't know, I think there's just something intrinsically and resonantly mystical about using a set of pseudo-incomprehensible images to invoke your power. It's implied that the system can be understood, but you may or may not ever learn how to understand it. Plus, if the symbols are well-described (or included in an appendix or something) then it adds a powerful visual element to the usage of the magic system (and increases the other possible geeky uses for the magic system by about a hundred fold.)
What's not so great: It's the Force. I mean, that's basically what's going on here. AonDor taps into a mystical energy source that permeates the entire world and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I'm not really blaming Sanderson for using this concept -- he handles it very well and there are enough subtle differences (as well as blatant ones) to differentiate it from the Force that it works. My problem, rather, is that this idea is so prevalent in fantasy as a whole (at least it seemed that way when I was reading Elantris). So the book just loses a few points on the originality scale for that.
Also, though this has more to do with the storyline than anything, I'm not a huge fan of Sanderson's revelation at the end of the book that there are other ways to use the Force. I like it as a world-building aspect... to a degree... because I'm always a fan of options. But I don't like this information coming to us at the absolute end of the book, with vaguely hinted promises that we'll study this idea in a later novel (especially when said novel hasn't been planned for yet). Also, again, it reeks of Star Wars and its vastly-expanding roster of Force-using, quasi-religious traditions.
(Side note. I find it interesting that the book that vaulted Sanderson onto the stage, and also created his reputation as "the magic system guy," also has the, arguably, least original of his magic systems. I guess it makes sense that the resonance of this system allowed him to ease into the market, as opposed to taking a chance at totally alienating readers with a more original form of magic. Thoughts for another day, perhaps.)

Mistborn Trilogy
Okay... here's where things get tricky. Mistborn has no fewer than three magic systems, though they are all arguably interconnected. I think it'll be best to break these down into sub-headings in order to focus on one at a time.
This is the "main" system. An allomancer drinks a special metallic mixture, and can then "burn" those metals in order to create an effect. Different kinds of metals create different effects, and only certain people can burn certain metals. There are other limits and tricks to it as well, of course (with Sanderson, there always are) but I think that's enough of an overview for now.
What I like: Clear power source. It's fantastically easy to create drama with this system. You can have your characters be ridiculously overpowered and constantly learning more about their capabilities, but all you need to do is take away their metals at the right time and you have instantly created tension. I love it. Some of the best moments in this trilogy were when the allomancer characters that you cared about had to deal with other allomancers -- or even particularly dangerous non-allomancers -- when they were either low on or completely without their metal mixtures.Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
The limits. Allomancy can create some rather silly effects (the ability to affect emotions, to me, stands out as being somewhat incongruous with the rest), but most of the powers are clearly defined. What is more, the especially memorable and powerful ones (Pushing and Pulling, for me) only affect metal. This creates some interesting scenarios when a character needs to bring along metal to use as a jumping point or a weapon or so on. It really makes you look at the world differently as you read the book, which leads to my next point.
The worldbuilding. This is a fantastic magic system because it has clear implications for the world. Metal weapons, for example, are nearly useless in this world because an allomancer could just take your weapon away from you. The most valuable form of currency in the world is not gold or jewels, but a rare metal that creates an especially powerful ability. These kinds of details color the already creative landscape and really help the world to feel distinctive.
What's not so great: The lack of limits. I mentioned the emotional powers above. That kind of thing makes this system a bit goofy at times. Don't get me wrong, I still loved these books and the way Sanderson handles the powers (yes, even the goofy ones) is masterful. But the powers themselves just seem... a bit out of place, I guess. At least if you consider Allomancy by itself. It would have been nice if the system could have been limited to tangible effects. There's one that makes you stronger, there's one that pulls on metals, there's one that detects other allomancers, there's even one that destroys all your metals. But influencing emotions? Seeing the future? Eh... kind of starting to lose me there. What is more, I never felt that the emotion-influencing thing was ever used all that well. It was there, it had some influence here and there, but it was really hard to keep track of and gauge it's power. In an otherwise focused and limited system, powers like these stood out as being somewhat inconsistent, and that weakened the system a bit.

I think I'll continue this tomorrow.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Watching Empire Strikes Back

Earlier today, I watched Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back with one of my good friends and collaborators. We sat down to do a critical examination of what works and what doesn't work in the film, as well as discuss what things we really like or dislike about it and why.

Well, needless to say, within about ten minutes we were going off into tangents filled with near-endless praise about the movie and were only able to reign ourselves in with a good deal of difficulty.

Wow, such a good movie.

I mean, seriously, from that opening shot on the star destroyer, filled with an aura of mystery as it shoots out probe droids to find the rebel base, to the closing scene with Luke having his hand repaired and the distinct sense of loss that pervades the moment... it's just fantastic. This movie is why I like movies.

Now, of course, there are faults -- no movie is perfect. But even the film's weaknesses shine in the right context. And, as with any film, it really depends on your expectations.

Do you expect an inspiring character drama from a Star Wars film? No. But this movie is dripping with character.

Are you expecting the flashiest action sequences from a movie that's over thirty years old? No. But the ones in this film are still top-notch.

See, it's not about the biggest, or the fastest, or the most impressive explosions, laughs, or fight scenes. It's about the emotional connection to the audience. It's about making things feel real. And Star Wars, this Star Wars, feels more real to me than dozens of other films. Even films that really get me, in the gut and everything.

They provoke emotion, sometimes. They impress me with their plot twists, the first time. They entertain me with their spectacle, on most days. But they don't feel real.

It's hard to explain or define. And you certainly can't produce it intentionally. It's a magic blend of factors in cinema and writing and even in games. It doesn't happen often. Even when it does, it doesn't happen for everyone. But for those that it does happen to, no matter what the film, novel, or other experience is... well, that means something.

And in my creations, that's what I'm trying to achieve. Even if it's just for one person... it'd be worth it.

"You never understood why we did this? The audience knows the truth. The world is miserable, solid, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, and you could make them wonder? Then you got to see something very special. You really don't know? It was the look on their faces."
-The Prestige (2006)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Warbreaker Read-through: Midpoint, pt. 2

Alright, now I spent quite a bit of time talking about Warbreaker yesterday, but I've still got some thoughts. I may have come across as a bit too negative. So this is my effort to correct that impression.

Make no mistake, despite it's seeming lack of luster when compared with other Sanderson works, Warbreaker is still a Sanderson novel. What this means is that a) There are certain things one comes to expect from it, and b) It is a fantastically solid novel.

Warbreaker is still one of the most inventive pieces of fantasy to be written in the genre. (Slight caveat. With fantasy experiencing something of a renaissance right now, I recognize that the genre as a whole has been growing steadily [by leaps and bounds] more inventive than it was during the post-Tolkien years. That being said, Sanderson is doing it more consistently than any other author that I know of right now.) Its worldbuilding stretches previously-explored ideas geographically and thematically, and its characters are all engaging and entertaining. We're exploring ideas in ways that haven't been done before, and we're using tools that have been otherwise unnoticed in order tell the story. We're building up to a great twist, and we've had some interesting character development already. So yeah, it's a good book. Better than most of the generic stuff to be written in the genre (just... not quite as good as Sanderson's best. That's all.)

But there's one thing that sticks out to me as being especially enjoyable in Warbreaker.

As a Sanderson fan, there are things I've come to expect from his books. I expect a high learning curve. I expect to spend the prologue going "Woah, that's awesome. What's going on?" and then spend the first few chapters scratching my head with a "Wait, where are we?" expression on my face. I expect to be a bit underwhelmed by the characters at first before falling head-over-heels in love with them by their second or third perspective chapter. I expect to spend hours ruminating over the magic system, the various world elements and societies, and the eventual plot twists. Oh, yeah, that's right. I expect a HUGE series of plot twists at the end. I expect for the book to feature prominent religious figures and organizations having influence on the plot, and I expect there to be a sense of "all religions are the same" arising at some point along the way. I expect everything we know to be a lie. I expect his characters to show levels of depth and have them reveal things to us that we never would have expected.

All that being said, I did not expect to find within the pages of Warbreaker a trio of characters that make the most compelling philosophical arguments in defense of being a mercenary that I've ever seen.

Denth, Tonk Fah, and Jewels are the most enjoyable part of the book. Yes, Siri is a delight and is doing sweet and important things with the GodKing. Of course, Lightsong is hilarious. Vasher has the mysterious past; and Vivenna is the most admirable one of them all (also has the most room for growth, arguably). But the mercs... they're just fun. Even when they (and by "they" I mean Denth) reveal surprising levels of philosophical and cultural depth with their humorous arguments for why everyone hates mercenaries, they're still fun. Of course, by this point in the story, we know that they're no mere mercenaries and they're probably more involved in the greater plot than we initially anticipated and they've got a mysterious tragic past connected with Vasher and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. That's all well and good, but the reason I like these guys is because of moments like these:

...uhm... moments to be added later, as I seem to have misplaced the book. ~sheepish~ Sorry.

Oh, and also, props to Sanderson on one of the other "plot" twists I called. I didn't mention this one, but pretty much as soon as Jewels and Clod the Lifeless walked on stage and they started talking about their dead companion Arsteel, I said "I'll bet the Lifeless is Arsteel and that's going to be a major revelation later on in the book."
Turns out, I was right, but it doesn't matter in the book. Sanderson mentions it offhand in his annotations (which are fantastic, by the way. If you're a Sanderson fan and haven't read these... well, do so.) So apparently it never comes up in this book, which I kind of see as a missed opportunity, but I'm also glad that it wasn't obvious foreshadowing or anything like that. So I guess that's a point in the books favor on the subtlety department.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Warbreaker Read-through: Midpoint

So today I passed the halfway mark in Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker. I figure this is far enough into the book for me to start making some observations and offering my thoughts.

It's always difficult for me to review books. Especially when comparing a single book to others in the genre or by the same author. Most of the books I read are long, sometimes exceedingly so. In addition, I have an abysmally slow reading speed; I like to soak in the story and live in the world and spend time with the characters when I'm reading a book. As a result, I don't get to reread books very often. So it's difficult for me to remember or effectively express my opinion on said books. Not to mention the various details of plot, world, and character that escape the feeble trap of my mind.

Consequently, even though I haven't consciously thought of it until now, one of my goals with my reading goals for this year is to improve both my speed and retention while reading.

Barring that, I'm trying to read critically, from the perspective of a writer, in order to identify what I admire in the books I like and why I admire those things and how I can apply that knowledge to my own writing. Among other things.

That being said, at this point, I'm mostly amused by Warbreaker.

There are things I like, as with any of Sanderson's work. The magic system is inventive and robust, and it's incorporated widely into aspects of the world's society, culture, and psychology (something that Sanderson consistently does well in his works). The world-building is immersive without being distracting (for the most part), and he does a good job of following through on the logical conclusions that such a world requires of its people (his treatment of the Returned pantheon is especially enjoyable).

However, Warbreaker seems a bit too... obvious to me. At least compared with Sanderson's other works.

Now, I will admit that this isn't entirely fair. I'm coming to this book in order to satiate my craving for Sanderson writing after reading The Way of Kings, the first volume of his soon-to-be masterpiece The Stormlight Archives. (He obviously learned a lot and grew a lot as a writer while working on the end of The Wheel of Time.) In addition to that high expectation, I recognize that I've always kind of looked down on Warbreaker. It's got a lot of baggage, as far as where I'm coming from (and not necessarily bad baggage, just... baggage).

For example:

While Sanderson was working on the book, he posted various versions of the draft to his website in order to give his potential fans a chance to sample his writing style as well as to give potential writers a glimpse into the process. In other words, it was a free book. In my mind, this creates a subtle and somewhat unjustified paranoia that it lacks the quality of a paid product. I don't know why I would think that someone would put less effort into a piece of work that anyone can see as opposed to the ones that only show up on store shelves. But there you go, that's my prejudice showing through.

I've also never been able to shake off the suspicion that this was just a "side project" between Mistborn and The Wheel of Time (or The Way of Kings). Sanderson talks often about how he needs to work on smaller, "side" projects between his epics in order to cleanse his pallet and keep himself interested. Exploring these "diversions" is a refreshing way for him to generate and follow ideas. Sometimes (often, it seems) these diversions or side projects turn into publishable material, as was the case with the Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians books and Warbreaker (as I understand it). This is a good idea, one that I fully support and intend to implement in my own career, but I was so blown away by Mistborn that I couldn't see (at the time) how anything could measure up to its epicness, which is what I wanted it to do. (Having worked on my own side projects sense, I can better understand how they fit within the oeuvre of an author. I'll probably take some time to talk about that in November.)

Now, baggage explained, we'll go back to the "obvious" comment from above. (Goodness, this is getting convoluted. Let's see if we can stay on track from here on out. Shall we?)

Sanderson is the master of the "big reveal." He builds and builds and builds throughout a book or a series and then WHAM!, at the end of it, you have every rug you've ever stood on pulled out from beneath your feet as you fall on your back with your jaw still dropped to the floor.

Exaggeration. Slightly.

Point is, he does a good job of misleading you on the important things throughout a book and changing your entire perspective of the world while still making things make sense when you read through it again. It's fantastic misdirection and makes him a pretty good mystery writer...

...except when it comes to the little things. There are small, minuscule details of Sanderson's writing that drives me up the wall in each of his books. I don't remember what they were for Elantris, Alcatraz, or Mistborn. The Way of Kings had some really awkward phrases and word usage (like "juxtaposition" used twice within three or four pages of itself). For Warbreaker, it's the obvious foreshadowing.

A clarification. I definitely don't know how this book is going to end, I've had some friends mention that it shifts dramatically in a religious direction toward the end (which is both a big surprise, considering the religious overtones of the book so far, as well as something I've come to expect from Sanderson). But I definitely don't know how all these different plot threads are all going to weave together in the end to prevent the supposedly-inevitable war that's been looming over us from the beginning of the book. (It's called Warbreaker, people. Of course the climax is going to involve preventing the war. Besides he doesn't have enough pages left to chronicle an entire war [not to mention that, until The Way of Kings, Sanderson had shown no inclination of writing wartime fantasy].)

However, I do/did realize a number of things that I'm sure Sanderson thinks he's being subtle about.

For example:


"The priests of the Iridescent Tones, it appeared, were hiding things from the rest of the kingdom. And from their gods."
     -Warbreaker, chapter 21
Of course the priests are hiding something! I've known that since Lightsong's introduction! (Chapter 3) As soon as "Scoot" Llarimar mentioned that the priests can't tell the Returned about their previous lives I said, "Oh, there we go. They're hiding something. There's going to be a really important revelation at the end of this book about the Hallandren gods and they're probably going to be taken down off of their pedestals. Control the information, control the world. Yep, yep, yep."
Thing is, I'm okay with that. I'm looking forward to learning just what the priesthood his hiding and how the Returned are actually different from what we've been led to believe. At this point in the book (Chapter 28), we've already had a fairly dramatic revelation about the GodKing himself that I was really impressed by.
What I'm irritated about, however, is that Sanderson felt he needed to devote an entire chapter to show us that the priests are hiding things. Even more annoying is that it was a Vasher chapter. Vasher! The darkly mysterious man who may or may not be pulling the strings behind everything and who may or may not be the villain and who may or may not be carrying a sword that could doom the entire world in apocalyptic black smoke. (Sanderson really loves his apocalypse storylines in fantasy.) I mean, the Siri chapters are doing an impressive-enough job of showing us how deep the treachery and deception of the priesthood goes, even if the reader couldn't detect the vibes of "something's not right" from elsewhere in the book. I suppose the Vasher chapter shows, directly, that the deception is more widespread than just the GodKing and that Vasher is seemingly moving against the Hallandren pantheon, but still. Did we really need the entire chapter to build up to the above quote?

Kalad's Phantoms
...or whatever they're called. Yeah, they're coming back. (Upon further reflection, they might just be a part of the world that will come up in the potential sequel. For now, I'm running with my initial impression.) They were described as a mythological, invincible fighting force of Lifeless. That in itself is just an interesting bit of the world's lore. However, when the character telling the story mentions at the end that "legends say the Lifeless are still out there," it had might as well be saying "watch out, they're coming back." Any kind of "legend," "myth," or "just a story" that claims something/someone is "still alive," or "still out there," or whatever in a speculative fiction book can reasonably be expected to be true. (If you can't follow that string of descriptors and/or logic, I apologize. Just pick one of each and go with it. If you're still lost, ask me. I'll try to do a better job of breaking it down for you.)
So yeah, I'm fully expecting these guys to show up for the final battle or some such. In fact, knowing Sanderson's penchant for hiding things in plain sight, and picking up on this trend of the D'Denir statues being so pervasive throughout the city and always portraying militant figures, I wouldn't be surprised if these statues turned out to be the unstoppable army. ~shrug~ It's a thought. We'll see.

My goodness. I think this one has gone on long enough. I've got to be careful or else my blogging word count will exceed my writing word count and then where would I be?
More thoughts on Warbreaker tomorrow.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Party, party, party!

So, a big thank you, first of all, to all of those who came to the going away party. It was good to spend some time with all of you before hopping across the pond for five months, and I hope to stay in touch with most of you while I'm in England. I appreciate your friendship.

Alright, now back to work. I've got suitcases to pack, paperwork to set in order, and words to write.

Current count: 5500ish/500,000

Picking up the pace is necessary.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Christmastime Is Here

So, due to a number of scheduling conflicts, my family didn't get to celebrate Christmas until this morning. But there was snow and we were all able to be together, so it worked out well enough anyway.

First, and most important, a big thank you to all my family for the gifts and the continued love and support.

Second, as pertains this blog, an update on the reading list: I got Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire and Tides of War, so those are definitely going on the reading list. I may even take them to England so I can read them.

Also notable among the gifts, are Lawrence of Arabia and Casablanca. I've never seen Casablanca, but I know it's one of those defining films of cinema, so I'm looking forward to seeing it. Lawrence of Arabia I saw only recently for the first time, and I was very impressed. so I'm happy to own it now.

So, yeah, Merry Christmas, everyone. Again.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

On Sleeping

These are the kinds of days when I wish I didn't need to sleep.

Now, most days, I really do enjoy my sleep. I find a certain brand of pleasure in settling in at the end of the day (or so) and sinking gradually (or gratefully) into unconsciousness. And I recognize that sleep is an important part of my/any creative process. The opportunity to let the mind rejuvenate and create mental connections between disparate ideas is one that I am truly grateful for.

But when I'm in the throes of a creative project, I really don't want to be bothered by the limitations of my mortal body. It's a time like this -- when I'm excited about and focused on a project to the degree that I have more to say about it than I'm letting on, even to myself -- that I would much rather stay up through the night in order to pound out another two thousand words, or another seven plot points, or three more details about the worldbuilding, than turn in for the night and get some rest.

There are some nights when I'm more energized in the face of my work than I've been all day. I couldn't possibly think about going upstairs, brushing my teeth, and settling in for the night. Come on, I'm just getting started!


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Learning How To Write --- A Reading List

Wow, didn't think I'd make this one in on time. Lots of planning for England got done today. Just about two weeks before we leave. Hoo-boy.

For today, I simply present a brief list of books on writing that have impressed me over the years. I hope you all get a chance to read them. They're worth it.

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

The most important book on writing (and life in general) that I've read. Ever. I have almost memorized this book and I only learned of its existence about five months ago. Read it. It will change your life if you let it.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White

The second most important book on writing, if only for its brevity. Breaks down matters of grammar and technique into succinct, example-filled commandments and presents them to the reader as holy writ. This needs to be mastered before you begin thinking about breaking the rules.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

This book will always have a soft spot in my heart because it was the first time I was actually granted a window into the creative life. The trials and triumphs associated with that life made for a stirring read, though the number of near-tragic lives that seem to populate creative childhoods in the broader popular culture is somewhat off-putting for those of us who grew up in health homes, but I digress. The second half of the book, however, is all meat to put muscle onto the writing bones. Generally useful and straightforward advice presented in an entertaining manner. Not as easy to reference as something like The Elements of Style, but it earns points for presentation and accessibility.

Save the Cat! - The Last Book On Screenwriting That You'll Ever Need, by Blake Snyder

This one makes you work a bit more. Blake Snyder is, quite obviously, a screenwriter writing for potential screenwriters with the aim of making a living. He's not all that interested in art or craft or any genre aside from film. But he does understand structure and he does want to tell a good, original story. It takes a little abstract thinking and adaptation, but you can apply many of the lessons here to all forms of writing. Especially all the tools for outlining (though I don't agree that you have to do so much outlining before setting pen to paper.)

Stein On Writing, by Sol Stein

I haven't actually finished this one yet. But Sol Stein knows what he's talking about. He's worked on every end of the business in almost every genre and has been at it for a long time. (At least, by the time he wrote this book.) He has a very distinct angle with his genre (literary) and several clear biases (I don't think he'd appreciate being featured by a Fantasy-oriented writer.) But he does challenge us to bring our craft out of "mere" entertainment in order to try at being something actually meaningful in other people's lives. (Like, say, The Art of War. Seriously, people, go read it.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Few Websites to Watch

Not feeling well today. Poured most of my effort into the actual writing for the day. I don't want Resistance to beat me before I even get out of the gate, so I want to make the writing during these first few days of the year to be my first priority (especially since I haven't written in a while). Regardless, I didn't want to give up on posting an update today, so here I am, albeit a bit short.

A few websites and online resources that I'll be considering throughout the year. Haven't decided which blog to follow for this month yet, but these are all worthy candidates. (Thus far.)

The famous "fantasy rants," she covers a variety of writing topics that can be applied to many genres, but are geared toward good writing and the reduction of cliches within fantasy especially. I discovered this gal early on in my efforts to write well and I keep coming back for more. I doubt I've read all of them, but it's been so long since I read some of them that it feels like the first time.

If limyaael is responsible for inspiring my ideas, this man is the one to blame for having them actually make it to paper. I only recently discovered Steven Pressfield through a little book entitled The War of Art (not the one by Sun Tzu), which changed my life. Seriously. It hasn't even been six months since I read it for the first time, but I have been more productive (and, consequently, much happier) than I've ever been at any other point in my entire life. Yes, I know it sounds like I'm a cliched, raving maniac. But this man is worth it!

Not especially relevant to me quite yet, as I'm still working on producing a library of first drafts, but I've found the words of this literary agent to be enjoyable and insightful. This is another one of those where I haven't read  all of the entries. However, I definitely consider it to be of high quality.

This author's website is useful if only for one reason: Mugging the Muse: Writing Fiction for Love AND Money. Yeah, it sounds like a self-help book. Sure, it's kind of difficult to find on her new site. And yes, I will admit that I haven't read it in several years, so I cannot verify that it's actually good. But for my mid-teenage, young writer's self, it was a perfect read. Just enough of a mix between inspiring stories and cold, hard facts about the business to both verify for myself that I want to be in this business and give me the initial equipment to charge off into the unknown.

Yes, I continue to praise and adore Brandon Sanderson. It is, in part, because he deserves it. It is also, however, largely due to his very public and helpful persona. He continually seeks ways to offer assistance to fledgling writers through as many avenues as possible. All while trying to write the biggest and best fantasy novels on the market right now. The man is a machine.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Reading List 2011

In alphabetical order by last name.

Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett
Codex Alera, by Jim Butcher   (6 books)
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins   (3 books)
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
The Maze Runner, by James Dashner   (3 books)
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
Malazan Book of the Fallen, by Steven Erikson   (10 books)
The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynn Jones   (3 books)
The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson   (14 books)
The Stand, by Steven King
Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis   (3 books)
The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli   (nonfiction?)
Dying of the Light, by George R.R. Martin
The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi   (nonfiction)
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell
A Short History of the World, by J.M. Roberts   (nonfiction)
Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson   (3 books)
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss   (3 books, eventually...)
A History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell   (nonfiction)
Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
Leviathan, by Scott Westerfield   (2 books)
The Once and Future King, by T.H. White
The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn   (3 books, obviously)

70 books currently, if I read them all. You'll note that there's a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. That's okay. We've got plenty of books here to fill our goal of reading one fiction book every two weeks. (For those who don't want to do the math, I need to read 26 books total.)

I started Warbreaker today, so that'll fill the first couple weeks here. Following that, I'd like to read Of Mice and Men, or The Once and Future King. I'll probably read The Prince this month as well if I have time (flight time is about ten hours, so...).

I may start Malazan Book of the Fallen once I'm in England, but that'll eat up most of my reading list, especially since I'm planning on reading The Wheel of Time during my Fall semester (in preparation for the final book's release in early 2012).

Yeah, if I go with that plan, it effectively eliminates my reading goal for the year. Wow.

We very well may adjust the reading goal. It should be relatively easy to fit some of the Young Adult novels here in between the epics (I read I Am Not A Serial Killer in about three days following The Way of Kings). And using those as something of a palate cleanser will provide the variety I'll need to continue with the weightier books.

In addition, I really want to make a dent on my "classics debt" this year. I am horribly deficient in my knowledge of such works as Dracula, The Count of Monte Cristo, Ninteen Eighty-Four, etc.All things that I need to read. So those are a priority this year.

Wrapping up, House of Leaves is a novel that's generated some buzz recently (despite being published back in 2000), The Name of the Wind is widely lauded as just about the best thing to happen to fantasy lately, The PIllars of the Earth and The Stand are modern epics of a non-fantasy variety, and I want to read Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy again just to see if it's still good or not.

As always, I'm open to suggestions, and I'll likely deviate from this list as people proclaim the greatness of other books to me (I've already had The Lies of Locke Lamora and  One Hundred Years of Solitude pitched to me just sitting here). For now, though, this is a good start.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

And So It Begins --- The Journey to 500k

Well, here we are. The Year of Words has officially started. Today I took the first, faltering steps toward my goal of 500,000 words for the year.

I'm at about 850. Yeah.

That's okay though. This is going to be a big project. I'm okay with easing into it.

All that being said, I'm really excited about this first project of the year. It's current title is Godchild (no connection whatsoever to Godslayers, sorry). I intend to work on this novel throughout the time I'm in England. It's drawing inspiration from a variety of sources and is probably my most character-driven fantasy novel thus far (in conception at least; we'll see how it works in execution). It's going to be a tour de force about a man with magically-induced amnesia coming to terms with the truths that his shattered memory conceals. It's the first novel I've ever written in first-person and present tense, so I'm curious to see how that affects the immersion for my readers. (You're just going to have to wait a while to let me know. I very well may not finish this one by the end of the year.) It's mind-based magic system also allows for some really interesting twists on perspective (I hope), and it's also probably the darkest, most violent story I've ever approached telling (which is kind of saying a lot, for me.)

All in all, an engrossing project that will gladly see the investment of my time.

Oh, and as promised, a brief sampling of today's writing.

   There are no words before the next invasion.
   Fire surrounds me. My clothes grow crisp and then burst into flame. My skin melts and my blood begins to boil. Wind howls, roaring in my ears, filling my lungs and then stealing my breath.
   I open my eyes. He stand before me. Dark and towering with the fire obscuring all details of his person.
   My eyes are like glass, made more pure by the flames. As I turn my face toward him, my body becomes as bronze, refined by the searing flames dancing in the reflected light of my skin.
   The flames wrap themselves around me as I reach forward, grasping at this man. This towering, hulking beast whose eyes blaze with fire and shadow and desperation.
   My fingers are closed around his ankle. The water drips down the drain.
   Drip... drip... drip.
   He wants something, but I have no idea what it is.