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.


Jeremy said...

I enjoyed reading Butcher's Alera series, but I got them from the library - I don't need to re-read them. I hadn't picked up on his stylistic twitches but you're right... how many ululations can a reader stand?

Grayson Towler said...

The eyebrow arching is the most damning thing. Other writers were making fun of it at a conference I just attended, so Butcher has to know he does it. Is it sort of an in-joke for him now?

There was one scene in the last Alera book where a character arched her eyebrows twice in a scene... and she'd just had her eyebrows burnt off. She had no eyebrows left to arch, but she plugged ahead and arched them anyway. What a trooper.