Monday, February 22, 2010

Progress Report: 2/22/2010

Yes, well... working along, basically. That's the progress report.

Okay, I can give you a little more than that. Going from the comic version of Thunderstruck to a print incarnation is a very interesting experience. It's true that I lose the ability to tell the story through art, which gives you tools that prose doesn't have. By the same token, I have the opportunity to go deeper in a lot of other ways. Mapping the internal geography of each character is done more from the inside than the outside. By that I mean that the drawn Sharon can express herself through facial carriage and body language much more than the prose Sharon, while the prose Sharon can give you more of what's going on in her head. It's an interesting trade-off.

Another difference, though, is that the comic version is very literal, while the prose version gives me freedom to speak in metaphor. Comic artists have been trying to cope for this a while using visual metaphor, which is a technique I only use sparingly. Manga art has a whole vocabulary of visual metaphor. Still, nothing beats the written word. I can say something like: "the earth itself seems to rise Psyche’s feet as if it cannot bear to be separated from her." Without resorting to the unbearably clunky tool of the narrative balloon, that's not the sort of thing you can really do in a comic.

Okay, so while I'm here...

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Look, this one was an assignment for work. One of the authors we publish is Lynne McTaggart, who is cited as one of the main influences for The Lost Symbol. And since I handle the ad copy for Lynne McTaggart, it fell to me to know something about what was in Dan Brown's latest big book. After all, as The Da Vinci Code proved, his books can make a sale-influencing impact on other related material.

So I'll start with the good.

Hold on. Still thinking.


Okay, so there's something kind of compelling about the way Dan Brown writes, which is to say it carries you along in a reasonably good thriller fashion. The big mystery is why this should be the case, since there isn't an interesting or realistic character in the whole thing, and usually it's concern for the characters that allows tension to build. His research is interesting, though I would never take anything from a Dan Brown book as true or accurate until I looked it up myself (worst offender was his book called Digital Fortress from a decade or so ago, which I abandoned halfway through when it became clear to me that every single "fact" in the entire book was demonstrably wrong).

Hmm. I was trying to write "the good," and I seem to be throwing in caveats left and write. So let's get to "the bad."

There is much, much too much to cover in a mini-review on the topic of the bad. I'll just hit on a few points.

Brown writes with a sledgehammer. There's not a subtle moment in the whole thing. For someone who loves to talk about symbology and the multi-layered meanings of things, he's big on spelling everything out ad nauseum so even the thickest reader will get the point. One expression of this is his "astonishment moments." Something is revealed to the character, and they react with such utter bewildered surprise that they practically fall over. This happens all the time, often with things that are not, or should not be, even slightly startling.

There's a particular plot twist in The Lost Symbol that Dan Brown tries to set up, and his inability to do subtlety makes it painful to watch. He telegraphs the true identity of the villain pretty early in the book. And then he spends the entire book trying to conceal that identity, so he can reveal it in the final dramatic moment. It's like trying to watch a stage magician with cards spilling out of his sleeves still trying to pull off his trick. I ended up feeling sorry for the author, which is probably not the emotion he intended to evoke.

And then there's the reveal of the Big Secret. With Da Vinci Code, at least the secret was something interesting. In this case, though, it's a Ruby Slippers moment. By that I mean it's one of these "You had the answer with you all the time!" revelations, and boy, those are hard to pull off. The secret in The Lost Symbol is a big fat lot of nothing. The fact that our protagonist, who we are reminded constantly is a Harvard symbologist, finds this "incredible" obvious revelation to be the least bit surprising means they're letting any doofus teach at Harvard these days in Dan Brown's world. What's more, the whole book is spent with characters risking their lives, sanity, body parts, etc. trying to protect this deep dark secret, and nobody expresses the least shred of bitterness that it was all to protect a "mystery" that could be found in pretty much any bookstore in the world.

In short, it was a Dan Brown book. What did I expect?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Progress Report: 2/15/2010

Okay, so... not much to report this week. I'm refining my query letter for agents, and showing it to some other people to see how it stands up. I'm in a bit of a waiting pattern here.

I think I'm battling a cold on and off here.

Well then, let's see...

Under the Dome by Stephen King.

If I had to rank Dome in the overall library of Stephen King's books, It'd land somewhere around the same spot as Needful Things. In both books, King focuses on a very large cast of characters, trying to capture the essence of a small town in the grips of a growing crisis. On the whole, I prefer it when he focuses more on a smaller cast and gives us time to know them better. I never felt the sense of attachment to the protagonists of Under the Dome as I normally get in a King book.

And thematically, I would say that I felt the emotional impact of the story was reduced for me somewhat by the fact that the villain was so reprehensible. See, Under the Dome shares a kind of thematic resonance with Lord of the Flies. Normal folks are put in a situation where they're cut off from the rest of the world, and the civilized veneer breaks down to reveal both the scarier and more heroic parts of us. All well and good. However, the main villain of Dome is never "normal" to begin with. He starts out about as vile a human being as imaginable, and when the town is cut off, he gets a temporary and dangerous boost of status that drives the plot. It's not bad, but I don't think it's as powerful as it could've been if everyone had started off more or less unremarkable, and we'd seen their true natures emerge as their isolation continued.

Anyway, it's a pretty good read and there are always good moments in a King book. This one doesn't rank with my favorites of recent years, but it's a solid entry.


First Lord's Fury by Jim Butcher.

The last installment of Butcher's epic Codex Alera fantasy series. At the outset, Butcher expressed his desire to create a high fantasy story in the tradition of Lord of the Rings. Did he succeed?

In some ways, yes. Butcher's writing always carries you along. His characters tend to be likable, his plots are tight and the pacing is strong, and he's very good at building the tension with ever-increasing stakes. He also does a fine job with the "Braveheart moments"; that is, when a character has to stand before a large group of people and deliver an inspiring speech about how this will be our finest hour, or something along those lines. It's very easy to do these sorts of scenes in a cheesy, unconvincing way, but Butcher delivers them handily. And he's always reliable for a good humor moment here and there.

So it's well-constructed fantasy. In terms of the deeper mythic resonance that gave Lord of the Rings the extra level of meaning and power... no. Butcher doesn't really have that arrow in his quiver. It's a fun read, not a book that will change your life. I don't think any author should be ashamed of that, though.

There are a few things that Butcher should be ashamed of, however... or perhaps his editor. The entire Codex Alera series smacks of sloppy editing. There are way too many sentences like: "Her long hair was tied back in a long braid." The repetition is totally understandable in a first draft, but by the final version that sort of stuff should be gone. And it's everywhere in the Alera books.

Butcher also has some writing mannerisms that just get on my nerves. By now, somebody must have mentioned to him that characters "arch an eyebrow" too goddamned much. I want to take Nair to the whole cast. We also get entirely too many wolfish grins, orders of magnitude, and grunts. Repetitive stuff like that happens throughout the book, and Butcher's editor needs to step up to the plate here.

Interestingly, Butcher's tendency for repetition provides a fine object lesson in this writing truism: there are some words that you can only use once, even in the course of a 600-page novel. "Ululating" is great for one use, and after that it sticks out like a sore thumb. "Mellifluous" is another word that's good once. So choose the timing and placement of such words with care, writers, and don't get stuck on them.


And last but not least, I bid farewell to Dick Francis, who just recently passed away. I'm not too big on the mystery genre on the whole. Dick Francis was always an exception. To maintain such a consistent level of quality for so long is an incredible achievement. He was, undeniably, a champion.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Progress Report: 2/8/2010

Rewrite finished! Now I'll get a look at the new chapters from my C&C readers, and Rose & Jade will be ready to go back in front of the agents again.

I'm happy with the rewrite. The opening chapters are more lively and engaging, some of the unnecessary stuff is cut out, and I really like the new prologue. Previously, I was ambivalent about whether the prologue was a good idea or not. Now I'm much happier with its place in the story.

Hey writers out there. Here's something you'll want to see. In the extras on the DVD of Up, they have a segment about the first draft of the opening sequence. They even do an animated version with the storyboard so you can get a rough idea of how the original version would've played out. There are some really funny and clever moments that the writers were very proud of... and it was absolutely the right choice to cut them all out.

If you haven't seen Up, rectify that omission as soon as you can.

If you have, you know that the opening sequence is where we get the full life and relationship between the Carl and Ellie. This sequence is critical. We must fall in love with them in order for the rest of the movie to work. We have to get a full and rich idea of their life in as short a time as possible. And it has to set up the action for the rest of the film.

The original draft version would've dropped the ball. Good as it was, it wasn't good enough. The final version was a masterpiece.

As a writer, what strikes me about the journey from the first draft to the final version is how many "darlings" they had to kill. This is a kind of maxim in editing—"Kill Your Darlings." It means don't be afraid to cut stuff. Even if you've got a brilliant joke or a great character moment, if it doesn't serve the story as a whole, it's got to go.

That's hard to do as a writer. I've done a lot of commentary for other writers, and one of the things that becomes obvious pretty early on is when a writer thinks their own work is too "precious." Instead of listening to critique, they rush to the defense of what they've written. Every sentence is like a baby they have to protect from harm. They never change anything, and it's not worth critiquing them. Not that my commentary is always brilliant or correct—far from it. A writer can be receptive to critique and still decide they don't want to go with a specific suggestion.

And hell, I know how hard it is to make those cuts. It's brutal.

So here's my corollary for "Kill Your Darlings," and it's simple: "Trust Yourself." As in, trust yourself that you can write something even better. Trust yourself that you have it in you to replace whatever you cut with something that works. Once you start trusting yourself, rewriting becomes more fun, I've found.

I've got a lot of darlings to kill off in Thunderstruck. Back to the novelization this week.

Oh, and congrats to the Saints. I get the feeling that Sax and Hayaka were in the audience with their Peyton Manning voodoo doll for that key interception.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Progress Report: 2/2/2010

Beg your pardon about missing yesterday's update. I was sick and not really with it.

Today, I am better, though it was still a struggle to pull myself out of bed. That isn't a sign of illness, however--I'm always like that. Especially in winter. I feel it would be a very short step for me to become a hibernating animal. In fact, that sounds wonderful.

Think of a civilization built by a hibernating species. Let's say bears. Why not? They're smart, very dexterous with their claws. Not too far from prehensile. They even walk upright when they want. So a civilization of bears, with the hibernation instinct firmly in place that puts them to sleep three months out of the year.

And let's gloss over the tropics, since nobody hibernates in the tropics. And the fact that the southern hemisphere bears would be on a different schedule. Right.

Wars would be shorter. If you didn't finish your war before hibernation time, then you'd have to leave it for three months. And you'd wake up too hungry to fight for a while, and by that time you'd have plenty of time to think about it all and decide whether or not it was worth the trouble of all the fighting.

It would be a civilization with a completely different weight consciousness. Nobody would be upset about getting fat, because you have to put on as much weight as possible going into hibernation. An when you wake up, you'd be thin! Diets wouldn't be in the picture. That alone would make the whole thing worth it.

Ecologically speaking, though, there's a big upside. Basically, the earth would get a 3-month break from bear civilization every year. Very healthy for the planet. I think we should implement it now. Sounds civilized, doesn't it?

At least we could make a Discovery Channel or Sci-Fi special about it. We could call it "Hiber-Nation."

Um... anyway. Illness notwithstanding, I got some very good writing done this week, so I'm happy about that. It's getting to be close to that time when I hit the agent pool again.