Friday, May 31, 2013

#FridayReview #11: The Throne of the Crescent Moon

As always, my turbulent existence has lead to another break, but I'm here again with another edition of the #FridayReview! This time its a book I picked up after hearing the author talk at Immortal ConFusion. Saladin Ahmed is a pretty cool guy, with a really cool name that I am totally jealous of. Just like the names of all his characters in his Hugo-nominated novel

This book is a delightful Sword and Sworcery in full Arab theme, my personal favourite theme. It has always perplexed me why Middle Ages Europe, largely the most stylistically dreadful period/place in human culture, has been the basis for so many fantasy novels. The obvious reason for this is influence of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, with their decidedly British flair for tiny hovels in hills surrounded by decaying ancient ruins. No doubt, ancient ruins are awesome, especially if they are as majestic as those in LOTR. However, in a day and age where we can see and study the influences of almost every culture in existence, I feel it behooves us to write outside our cultural sphere. Which is why I was so happy to read the fantastic Middle Eastern/North African styled world of the Crescent Moon -- an obvious reference if there ever has been one. And awesome one.

During one of the panels of the Con, Religion in Storytelling, I think, Mr. Ahmed and others talked about how in traditional Arab tales, and Arabic speech, praises to god are common, and not only common, but many are flavorful and long. In this book, as well as that one, God has many titles: "God is the Mercy that Kills Cruelty," and spells are prayers shouted in his name: "Beneficent God is the Last Breath in our Lungs!" It's pretty wicked. As a total heretic, I found all of the religion in this book really easy to get along with. It was also good to get a story where the Arab traditions and culture is viewed from the inside rather than a European-style adventurer showing up in an Arab themed locale.

But enough of the politicks and whatnot! You want to know how the book actually was. The answer is pretty radical. The magic has appropriate flair and majesty, and seems appropriately difficult to come by and use. There are restrictions and expenses for most powers, such as, well, all the main characters, and one of the sides. Adoulla Makhslood's magically pure-white kaftan will only remain so if he remains unmarried. Raseed bas Raseed's superhuman strength and speed and skill with his forked blade are only as great as his piety -- which is pretty great. Zamia Banu Laith Badawi is blessed with the ability to turn into a magical lion, but she pays for this gift by losing everyone she loves. And Dawoud, a side character who gives us a few POV chapters loses time off his life for every use of his life-saving magics. Really powerful magic seems to require really dark things -- which is what the entire plot revolves around.

Adoulla is a ghul hunter, which is like being an undead hunter, except ghuls come in a far greater variety than zombies and vampires. While he is reaching the end of his career, he's the only one around, and so he just keeps on working, with his heavenly charged assistant, Raseed bas Raseed. Another day on the ghul-hunting racket brings him into a far larger plot to stop an evil sorcerer from corrupting the throne of the Crescent Moon with dark magics from the Traitorous Angel (the Devil) and eating all the souls of everyone around, or turning their intestines into cobras (real from-book examples).

The story takes place almost entirely in the confines of the majestic city of Dhamsawaat, which is rich enough to host a book twice this one's length. (I will admit, it was a little short for me - at 260 something pages, it doesn't last long enough for me) Dhamsawaat may as well be a main character all its own, and indeed the whole story is almost just an excuse to go sight-seeing. If the city wasn't so interesting, it would be a problem, as it is, it's still a small flaw. The pacing is pretty good, and it doesn't really slow down, though by my usual taste in longer books, to me it barely got started up. Much of the book is devoted to the Falcon Prince, a princely thief who sort of steals the show whenever he shows up -- another small flaw -- and his rebellion against the obviously corrupt Kalif. Really, the only time we get to see any action on the side of the antagonist, the sorcerer Orshado, before the climax is through POV shots from a guard he's torturing, and occasional attacks by his minions, including the ghost-manjackal Mouw Awwa, whose dialogues are always great. That's the book's biggest flaw, by far. I really wanted more active adventure/invetigation against the evil superboss Orshado, and less passively collecting and deciphering clues. But that may be a personal preference for action. I will say that preference aside, I would have liked more interaction with Orshado, even though his final appearance is pretty epic.

Overall, the Throne of the Crescent Moon is a pretty grand adventure, with some flaws. It definitely deserves the Hugo and Nebula nominations it received, though I might not have voted for it to win. Although given the competition, I definitely might have.

ONE WORD REVIEW: MAJESTIC                                      B/W/D: BUY

Friday, May 10, 2013

Guest post: Storytelling in Stories

We have a surprise, this friday, for today I present a guest post by a fellow member of the #nanopals, Madison Dusome (@_vajk on twitter, blog) There'll be another one of these next week, hopefully with some posts of my own XD I just bought the Hugo-nominated Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladhin Ahmed, so look forward to that review next week! For now, enjoy Madison's excellent advice on storytelling.

Storytelling in Stories

Recently, a lot of writers I’ve met online are in the process of editing their novels – no easy task!
I’m in that boat, too, and I frequently find that my scenes fall flat. Maybe it’s a matter of opinion
(I’ve heard we are our own harshest critics), but I prefer to believe I’ve got things to work on. I
diagnose these scenes by reading them aloud; I rewrite them and I analyse them using complex
mathematics* and imaginary numbers – but something’s still not right. Most writing guides
would have us check each scene for our protagonist’s goal, for conflict and for action of some
kind – but those checklist items are easy to find when you’re looking for them, and it’s hard to
determine if what you’ve found is actually effective.

Enter the Storytelling Check, in which you will use storytelling techniques to find any
weaknesses in your ho-hum scenes. For those of you who are worried: fear not, I am far from
technically educated in writing, and this check won’t involve fancy literary words or meaningless
writerly fluff (I hope). For those of you who are skeptical: hear me out (even if I am essentially
advising you that to tell your story well, you need to tell your story well).

Step 1: What was the last interesting thing that happened in your life? Think about the last story
you told your family at dinner, or the latest gossip you shared with friends. It doesn’t have to be
bookworthy – if you told it, it was at least worth your time and breath.

Step 2: Imagine the same listener and choose a scene that’s been giving you trouble (better yet,
if your listener is available, have them listen for real). Imagine yourself in your protagonist’s
shoes and tell your listener all about the scene – as sensationally as you can – as though it
happened to you. Try to convince them; try to share with them your terror, bravery, doubt or
passion. Try to do this from memory rather than by reading.

Step 3: Analyse. Did that work, or was your story a dud? Was your friend on tenterhooks, or

Okay, so there aren’t a lot of steps – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Chances are, you’ll realise
before even beginning that the scene isn’t tell-worthy; sometimes it may seem that there’s no
story to tell, or no point to build to at all! Fear not! If your scene falls flat...

First, remember that every story needs background and/or setup. For example, a recent event
in my life was a battle of wits versus a thief who was trying to make off with my cellphone. I
told the story to my mom over the (same) phone, but I first had to tell her that I’d recently bought
a new cell; otherwise the story would have made no sense (not even a desperate thief would have
wanted my old phone). If you think your scene is setup, you’ve got some options:

1. Shorten it: get the necessary data out of the way as succinctly as possible. Depending
on how short you go, you might even be able to piggyback this data onto another (more
exciting) scene instead of giving it the stage all on its own.

2. Lengthen it: make it into a scene worth telling by adding some story. A conversation, for
example, could happen over a cup of tea or between breaths in a daring swordfight. One
of those is going to be a lot more interesting to read! Make it unique and fascinating.

If the scene isn’t setup but still feels awkward upon telling it to a friend, try again. Can you
raise the stakes? Can you make it scarier, funnier, more heroic? Your friends might also be
able to help with this: upon the third retelling of my near-thief story, my listener asked, “How
big was this guy?” It was a detail I hadn’t considered important, but I added it to later versions.
Tell your fish story again and again until that fish is soooo big you can’t even get it into the boat.

If you’ve checked for setup and you’ve scoured for story in vain, it may be time to consider
elimination. If you’ve told your scene a hundred times and it still feels pointless (this may be
obvious by your desire to add, “And then I found five dollars..?”), maybe you don’t need the
scene at all? Collect any tidbits you want to use elsewhere and scrap the rest. Your listeners
(and readers!) will thank you.

Want to practise? Retell one of your favourite (or least favourite) scenes in the comments!

*Okay, okay, I used the wordcount feature of my word processor.

Friday, May 3, 2013

#FridayReview #10

I have to admit, I was thrown pretty low by my read through of 2312. So rather than reading fiction, I turned my attention to some self-help books. But not the weightloss or feel-good kinds, but editing! So this week, I present:

This book opens with a somewhat pessimistic critique of the current publishing world, but it's not one that's unfounded. In truth, many books do seem to be rushed through with little editing; I often spot many errors and frankly, (and hopefully not to belabor a point) books by some authors seem to just get allowed through will little editing at all. (see 2312) As someone starting out in the publishing biz, I can't wait to have a professional editor look over my book and advise me on how best to achieve what I want. But in the current atmosphere, it's unlikely that a professional editor will ever get to my novel unless it's already in near-perfect shape. Unless, of course, you pay for it yourself.

But the introduction is whatever; lets get to the meat. This book has 12 chapters of varying length; in total the book is 262 pages long. The authors have a fairly lighthearted style that I appreciated, and they tell it fairly straight. Each chapter is filled with examples from workshops or previous clients' work, the majority of which is published. It's mostly just "fiction" rather than genre fiction, but they offer a sci-fi story up in there, and the advice is good for everyone. It covers all the basics of editing, starting with that most basic of basic but most important of all: Show and Tell. 

Unless you're really just starting out, this chapter doesn't tell you anything you don't already know, but it does provide some good examples and explains exactly how showing is better than telling, and in what ways.  There's times for showing and there's times for telling, and finding that balance is difficult. I found the book's advice to be refreshing and useful. At the end of each chapter, there are exercises (the "answers" are in the back -- the authors themselves admit that there is no real right or wrong, and some people may edit the selections better than they did.) where you occasionally edit the classics like Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby. These were actually pretty fun, and I found their answers insightful when compared to my own.

Of the chapters, I found "Dialogue Mechanics" and "Once is Usually Enough" to be the most pertinent to myself. They were all good, but these two showed a number of examples that instantly brought to mind sentences from my own books. In dialogue especially, I hate writing "said" over and over again, but as the authors point out, we don't actually even really read it. It's more punctuation than anything; you're just ascribing the identity of the speaker, nothing more. The words usually speak for themselves. But I just hate writing it all the goddamn time, so I often use beats to cover it instead, having the character do something rather than just say something. And while I don't think that my writing is quite to the level of their examples, it did make me go through and think about how I was pacing my dialogue.

Pace is something stressed over and over again, and really it's the heart of a novel, and for good reason. It's important as all get-out! Too fast and you tired your readers out; too slow and you bore them into dropping it. Balance is important, something else stressed throughout the book.

Of all the things this book taught, I think being aware is the most important one. Self-awareness is important throughout life in general, but it's hard to learn. You have to be able to watch what you're doing with an analytical eye, and that can be tough when we're so emotionally attached to our work. You don't want to stop feeling those feelings, either; you just want to be able to read what elements are evoking them, and work with those parts of your novel best.

I'd like this book to be a thousand pages long; the 262 aren't really enough to cover everything that needs to be discussed about editing, and really you could go on forever. But for a good primer to editing, this book really works. 

ONE WORD REVIEW: ENLIGHTENING                                              B/W?D: BUY