Monthly Archives: July 2016

Battle Magic

I have not read a Tamora Pierce novel in quite some time, though she was a favorite of mine in junior high and high school.

Battle Magic is a stand-alone in a series about a group of mages. I know I read most of the books in the series, but I don’t remember most of it. But I guess that’s a sign that it was a decent stand-alone, since I wasn’t confused.

I have to confess though, the series, I recall, wasn’t my favorite of hers, and this book followed that trend.

Two mages and a student are traveling through the world learning new things and looking at new plants when they find themselves caught in the middle of a war. They have to choose whether to help or go home, whether to make an extremely powerful enemy or retreat to peace. And once they decide to help, they have to find out how they actually can.

The story itself was good, plenty of action to keep it moving. But the writing just seems a little plain. Not quite childish, but very straightforward and dry. A part of that is simply the characters–that is how they talk, it is their personalities, very straightforward. But, it would have been nice to mix it up.

I was also waiting for something–anything– to mix things up and take the story, even briefly, in a direction I didn’t expect. Though that came a bit at the end, the final plot twist was short-lived and, frankly a little bit of a let down.

Now, whether that’s true, or simply my perception based on a variety of other things I’ve been reading lately, that I’m not quite sure. But would my high school self have enjoyed it? I’d have read it, like I did the others, and probably have closed the book with a similar dissatisfaction, as I did most of the other books in the series.

These characters, I think, just aren’t the kind that make books into friends for me. Not enough sarcasm and sass, maybe. But with six or seven sets of characters in various series and quartets, it’s not surprising that a person might find she doesn’t fit in with one group. And there are plenty of other characters and stories by Tamora Pierce that I love, so I couldn’t dream of holding these against her.

It does, however, make me want to revisit some of my favorites, and maybe pursue some of the series I never got to finish…

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Writing titles and self-publishing

Onward to module fifteen, and some fairly useful information on writing a title for a book.

A title for a book needs to fit the targeted age range in its word usage, as well as give indication about the topic and the characters. A title needs to be exciting and enticing. We’ve all made judgements on what to read based on a title and cover, despite the probers warning otherwise.

A title, therefore, needs to be crafted. It’s not just something that pops into your head, although sometimes what pops into your head ends up being a good choice.

This, I think, explains why few of my books have a title. I’ve never out the time into crafting one. But, that’s a whole other story.

I am interested in getting a project refined enough to where a title is an important piece.

The course authors suggest writing out key words associated with the story, then writing as many possible titles as you can think of, using the key words as inspiration and guidance.

One thing to watch out for is a title that gives away the climax or ending. A title has to say a lot without saying too much. It really is important.

This module also talked, very beiefly, about self-publishing, mostly just mentioning that it is an option, and is entirely plausible as a beginning step. It’s also a step you can take once you’re published. Self-publishing allows you to get out the stories you want to get out. But, you lose out on some other perks of traditional publishing. Not in the least, you yourself have to build up a fan base and promote your work and sales yourself. But it can be done, in fact, it’s an option I have considered before.

But, for that if have to work a manuscript to as near perfection as I can get, not to mention come up with a title, too.

The Moon Trilogy

While I usually stick to books printed on dead trees, sometimes I take a foray into the ebook world, checking out self-published books, or just to read classic titles that I can get for free.

I was between books, waiting on the library, so I decided to knock some of the random books I’ve downloaded on my phone off the to-read list. First up was the Moon Trilogy by C.L. Bevill. I’d actually started the first book, “Black Moon,” a while back. Having no idea what to expect, I found a fantasy story about werecats and werewolves. I found, however, that the trilogy has more to it than cats vs. dogs.

Each book is dedicated to one of three magical moon objects that, together, can destroy the world, or at least the human dimension. The characters have to secure these items and make sure the villains don’t get them and use them for evil.

So while each book has a different set of main characters, who have to find their given object, equally as central to each story is the idea of imprinting, or soul mates, if you will. Each character, in the course of the quest, is thrown into the path of his or her soul mate, and the books are almost more about the couples getting together than they are about recovering the articles and stopping the end of the world.

The series wasn’t bad, just not what I was expecting.

What was quite interesting to me was to look at how the book, self-published on Smashwords, compares to a book published by a well known house. (Though I’m the first to admit it’s not an apples to apples comparison, unless you’re comparing the first book of another author, and even then, the processes are different.)

Mostly, what I noticed is that, if I decide to refine a work and do the self-publishing option, I’ll need to make sure I have someone to look specifically at words and grammar, as well as having someone who will be brutally honest in telling me what works and what doesn’t.

Bevill wrote an interesting series that would make a great crossover between fantasy and romance, but romance isn’t really my thing.

What I wanted, though, was more character variety. This is where the writing course I’ve been taking comes in. The voices of her main characters were mostly the same. The actions and personalities of the lovers were mostly the same. The couples were mostly the same: one was protective, the other was hesitant about the relationship. One could switch the characters is and it would make little difference.

Granted, in a book that is fewer than 200 pages on my iPhone, it’s challenging to get character development, but that is so crucial to the story. It’s the difference between someone reading the story because they are engrossed, and someone finishing it because they started it and it’s too ridiculous to stop halfway in.

I confess, I was more of the latter, for all that the storyline was interesting to me. What I will say is that Bevill has potential, and she can definitely write good stories, perhaps they just won’t be my genre.

Playing the publishing game

Now that the writing course is coming to a close, with just a few modules left, it’s starting to get into information that I find interesting and useful.

The latest module was all about how to get started in the publishing world.

It included etiquette and technique tips for how to reach out to publishers, what information you should include, how much information you should include, how to format your manuscript and accompanying materials, and things like that. 

Example, a cover letter should explain your book, why you write it and why it fits their publishing patterns. It shouldn’t be more than a paw long. Also, instead of sending the whole book, send just a few chapters. This accomplishes everything. How likely are you to finish a book that doesn’t interest you in three chapters? So why publish something that three chapters of doesn’t pique your interest. Anyone can tell if he or she wants to read a book after a few chapters; editors are trained to tell if anyone wants to read said book.

You’ll also want to include an outline and details on the rest of the book, to prove that you can finish a storyline. It goes without saying that you’ll want spelling and grammar to be flawless.

Nothing particularly mind-boggling, but still useful to know.

What it largely comes down to is that both writer and editor have services to offer, and it needs to be a mutually beneficial partnership.

Writers have content to offer, and at the rate people consume, publishers want all they can get. But it has to be sellable. Once an editor has agreed to work with you, they will do all they can to make you a success, after all, it reflects in him or her as well. In addition to marketing ability, editors also have experience to offer. This means, when an editor suggests a change or revision, it’s not made on a whim, but suggested based on experience and knowledge of what sells and what doesn’t.

As a writer, I know the attachment that develops between you and every word you pen. But, having been an editor as well, I know that a fresh pair of unbiased eyes can take something good and make it better (I know that from the writing end too).

A mistake many new writers make, according to the course authors, is assuming what they give to an editor is ready for publication. In my own journalism career, heck, even in simply college essays when permitted, I could count on one hand the number of times I got something back indicating my first draft was flawless.

The thing to keep in mind is that, whoever your editor is, they challenge you to do better. Every critique is a chance to grow, every revision is a chance to ask yourself why, and learn from that.

When I was starting my junior year, having transferred from a community college to a four-year, I had to take a reporting class which, after writing and editing a school newspaper for two years, I could do in my sleep. The professor told me that he was going to nit-pick my work, grade me harder on little things because I had more experience. I veiw the publishing and editing world the same way I viewed that class, a constant chance to improve. Once you’ve mastered one thing, you grow in the next. Anyone who says they write (or do anything) perfectly is lying. There is always room to grow.

I think as a new author trying to get started, that is the most important thing to keep in mind, whether it’s a rejection with some feedback, or an editor who wants to do some revising, someone is trying to share their experience with you, so you can learn and grow. It’s foolish to ignore that simply because you’re too proud to admit you’re not perfect.

I wish this module had included discussion on literary agents, though. In a brief explanation of contracts, the course authors state that, while some people say an agent isn’t worth the money, it’s nearly impossible to get published without one, which begs the question, who are these people saying agents aren’t worth the money? However, it would have been a nice addition to discuss the pros and cons, as well as how to go about finding an agent, especially if it’s hopeless without one.

BoneMan’s Daughters

Since I’ve been mentioning him in several recent posts, and I had one of his books on my shelf that I hadn’t read, I decided to return to Ted Dekker this week, finally reading “BoneMan’s Daughters”, which has been sitting on my shelf for a year.

Naval Intelligence officer Ryan Evans has been an absent father and husband for a long time, but when he gets captured in the deserts of Iraq by terrorists, he realizes how much he truly loves his family, and how badly he wants a second chance. Evans returns stateside to find that everything he left has dissolved even further, and no one wants to give him a second chance. When a serial killer kidnaps Evans’ daughter, Evans is given a chance to prove his love–and prove that he isn’t the killer.

In keeping with his style, Dekker packs this book full of fast-paced action, with different characters offering different views and theories about what’s going on. And because it’s Dekker, you never quite know what twist he’ll pull out at the end.

While he does delve into psychology some in this book, I would classify it as just a thriller, not a psychological thriller like some of his other titles, including “Three” and “Skin.” It’s these psychological thrillers that I really love, because it keeps your mind guessing the whole time. While I knew that Dekker could pull out something wild at the end, I also could easily predict how the story was going to end. So, as with other thrillers, all the reader has to do is enjoy the fast-paced action leading to the end.

I did notice this story was a little different than some of his others. It was a little creepier, and actually contained a few swear words, which for Dekker is uncommon. But a note at the end of the book sheds some light on it, I think, when he discusses the situation in his own life that led to the book and made the story so personal for him.

What I also noticed is that this story didn’t end in the typical neat and tidy fashion. The cops and FBI didn’t show up and quickly absolve Evans of any suspicion. In fact, the way it ended would likely make that much more trouble in closing the case. It’s not particularly important, but it just struck me as actually kind of refreshing. As with life, not everything ends in a neat and tidy package.

This book reminds me why I love Dekker’s writing. It’s clean, fast, understandable and it draws you in quickly. Good thing my birthday is coming up soon, maybe I’ll get some book money.

Writing Tips

At last! A module that actually has some useful information in it.

Module thirteen was a compilation of various tips for writing, everything from where you work to how you work and how to edit and revise.

The course authors suggest developing a writing habit. Preferably in the same place, at your own desk, at a set time, creating a ritual that will help your brain get into the writing mindset. But most crucial, and this I do agree with, is that if you want to make it as a professional writer, you need to be a professional writer. You have to approach writing like you would your current job. This is definitely the part where I struggle, and why I have so many unfinished projects. Writing has been primarily a hobby, and publication is just a possible eventuality. In short, I haven’t disciplined myself enough to develop a writing habit.

The authors also discussed writing habits. For example, finishing a scene versus stopping halfway through. I’ve tried both ways, and it is nice to come back to a story and have the next step waiting for you. I find I don’t waste nearly as much time starting if I’m picking up in the middle of an action scene or a conversation. (The challenge is remembering to leave a note that tells me what is supposed to come next, otherwise the great idea I had yesterday is long gone.) Another suggestion they have is reading through several pages of the last day’s writing, which I can imagine would also be useful in getting yourself back into the story.

 

Finally, the authors spent a lot of time discussing revisions, making a point that editing and revising is no more a “one and done” than is completing a draft of a story. It will take several read-throughs, looking for jarring transitions, word padding, unnatural character behaviors and too-neat conclusions to various situations. And finding the areas that need work is only the beginning, because obviously then you need to revise and rewrite them, which will take time as well. Once the story itself is polished, then you go through and scrutinize word choices and look for grammar and punctuation errors.

Finally, or before, depending on who you are, you’ll need to select a title. For that, the advice offered is to make sure the title tells what the story is about, and gives a hint or indication toward the intended audience. For children, this may include the main character’s name and her quest in the story. For adults there is a little more room for ambiguity in the title. For example, I don’t think many men would mistakenly pick up Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale” expecting a James Patterson-esque story. (Though they could conceivably think it more along the lines of Stephen King, judging from the title alone.)

Finally, the course authors remind writers that they are not puppet masters, but narrators, describing what is going on in the story, not directing characters and creating sequences of events. This is a tricky idea to get your head around, as you obviously are planning and plotting each happening of the story. However, the planning should reveal itself through seamless flow, not through choppy or jarring pictures of action. A narrator will show you how the characters got from A to B. A puppeteer will make X happen because they needed it to get to Y.

The best way to understand this idea, I think, is to compare a successful author’s writing to your own, to get a feel for how the flow of your story compares to the flow of someone who has met with success. You’ll be faced with a choice, more than likely. You can be discouraged at how far you need to go, or you can be encouraged, knowing that everyone started where you are, slaving over a manuscript hoping for that big break. And with self-publishing avenues and e-readers, I think it’s easier than ever to get a following, which may give you a leg up in landing a contract with a publishing company.

Stardust

At long last I finally had a chance to get introduced to Neil Gaiman. For quite a while I wanted to read Stardust, after having found out the movie of the same name was based on a book.

As is always the case, the film world took some creative liberties, embellishing some parts and reworking others. But this is about the book, not the movie.

Uncertain of what to expect, I still found myself thinking the book seemed almost more suited for children, with the exception of a couple adult scenes. That didn’t bother me, in fact, it was a little reminiscent of some classics (I’m thinking C.S. Lewis, whom Gaiman actually mentions in his acknowledgments). However, while reading it, I must say, there were several adventures Tristran Thorn had that felt a little glossed over. The book could easily have been a hundred or even two hundred pages longer. But, perhaps Gaiman was intentionally writing a quick read.

As I said, the book is reminiscent of some of the classics, complete with talking trees and a few talking animals, witches and magic. It’s also a classic story of a quest to win a lady’s heart, wherein the hero realizes perhaps his love isn’t actually his true love.

Tristran Thorn sets out from his town of Wall in search of a fallen star that landed in the magical land of Faerie. What he finds, however, is not what he bargained for, and his quick trip takes quite a bit longer than he anticipated. In the course of his journeying, Tristran finds himself, in keeping with the style of many adventure stories.

I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to Gaiman’s work, and I am interested in reading some of his others. If they are written in a similar style, it will be a quick and interesting way to squeeze in an extra book now and again.