Archive for February, 2013

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Readalong: Searching for Dragons

(Man, that’s a mouthful of a title, isn’t it?)

Well, moving right along here in readalong land, aren’t we? I think I managed to read this in about three hours. Maybe less. Personally, I liked it a lot more than Dealing With Dragons. I think I like Mendanbar a little more than Cimorene, though not sure what that says about me. It may be that teenage!me liked Cimorene because I identified with her not being quite sure what her place in the world was, and adult!me appreciates that Mendanbar generally knows what he’s doing with his life.

All right, let’s do a quick overview for those who aren’t actually reading along and so do not know anything about the series, so they don’t live in utter confusion for the rest of the entry. The first book, Dealing With Dragons, introduced us to Princess Cimorene, who was not a typical princess and continuously butted heads with her parents for trying to get her to do princess-y sorts of things. She runs off and becomes the dragon Kazul’s princess (a post that is rarely volunteered for), and manages to stop a plot involving the Society of Wizards to get a certain dragon crowned as king (with help). Kazul is crowned King, Cimorene is happy with her spot, and everything is lovely.

Here in Searching for Dragons, we have Mendanbar, King of the Enchanted Forest, who is generally quite happy with things except his steward really thinks he should get on with marrying. He goes for a walk and discovers a large area of the forest has been destroyed, seemingly by dragons. Morwen (oh, Morwen, you continue to be my favorite) recommends he go and talk to Kazul about it, because there’s something funny about the whole set-up. Mendanbar goes to do so, but alas! Cimorene informs him that Kazul is missing and talks him into accompanying her in search of said dragon.

Maybe because I’m older and genre-savvy, but I thought the plot was pretty obvious from the get-go. What I really like about this book is two things: 1) the fairy tale twists, and 2) the description of the magic.

Ms. Wrede takes great pleasure in twisting as many fairy tales as possible. There’s the giant that only eats Englishmen (never mind that there are no Englishmen, because there is no England), the dwarf who’s legally changed his name to Herman because he’s gotten stuck with two many children from people not being able to guess his name, the uncle who’s not actually evil but feels the need to pretend to keep up appearances, and so forth. It’s brilliant and I like it a lot. (Herman’s probably my favorite, though.)

And then the magic. There’s magic in the first book, of course, with there being dragons and wizards and witches, but here Mendanbar is so entwined with the magic of the Enchanted Forest that he can actually see the constructions of the spells (his and other people’s) which leads to some very interesting solutions to some problems. Spell construction has always been fascinating to me as a reader and a writer, and I love to see how other people go about doing it.

Right, onto the questions. As always, your own comments and questions are welcome.

1) Mendanbar comes across pretty genre-savvy himself, since he knows he needs to follow advice exactly as it was told him to avoid disaster. Do you think this is a consequence of growing up in the Enchanted Forest?

2) How exactly do you think one repairs a broken flying carpet?

3) Why do you think Mendanbar’s magic doesn’t seem to decrease significantly outside the forest? Do you think there’s a distance limit on how far away it will still work?


An Addendum About Beta-Readers

You know, I’ve been around the block a few times, but I still occasionally make silly mistakes. And then I come and post about them here, hopefully to save you from making the same mistakes.

Last week (or was it the week before?) we talked about how to choose people to be beta-readers, and some of the pros and cons of different types of people. But I forgot something rather essential.

You need to tell your beta-readers what you want from them.

Pretty obvious, right? Sadly, it is often overlooked. You’re excited that so-and-so has agreed to read your story, so you send it to them and await their commentary anxiously, wondering if they’ll like it. And, finally, you get your story back with their notes and…it’s useless. It’s not at all what you wanted, what you needed.

(In my case, most of my betas are other writers, and they are lovely and give me all sorts of good notes without explicit directions, so I am spoiled, and then when I ask a non-writer to read a story, they tend to focus on correcting grammar for whatever reason–and I always beta first drafts, so the grammar is far from perfect, believe you me–so I get a manuscript back with a lot of “awkward phrase” marks and a couple sentences at the end about what they liked. Which is, sadly, not at all helpful.)

People beta differently. Left to my own devices, I tend to go through and leave a running commentary about my reactions to the story. So I’ll note where I’m confused, spots I thought were awesome, and then, at the ends of chapters, I try to articulate my overall thoughts on the story thus far and things I’ve noticed, good and bad. I know other people who read a whole story once before they leave any notes at all, or others that focus on characterization over plot.

No two people are ever going to beta alike. And, by working with different people, you can see who works for you. I have one friend whose beta style is so perfect I want her to read everything I write ever. And I have others who I will not ask again unless I have no other choice because they just don’t work for me. It’s very individual, much like everything in writing.

But you improve your chances on getting good comments from a beta by asking them to focus on certain things. If you want them to focus on flow, plot, characterization, or, hey, why not, grammar, let them know when you send them your story. They’ll still beta in their individual style, but they’ll try to focus on what you want instead of floundering in the wind.

Anything else I’ve missed, Squiders?

What is a Frame Story?

This seems to be the question of the week. At my writing group last Thursday we had a discussion of them, and just last night my husband asked me about them as well, though I’m not sure why.

So here we are. Frame stories.

For a simplistic definition, a frame story is the story outside a story (as opposed to a story within a story). To compare to a photograph, the main story is the picture and the frame story is, well, the frame. It serves as some sort of explanation as to why you’re getting the main story, and may even be as simple as an adult telling the story to a child (ala the Princess Bride movie).

It’s a fairly common literary device, and has been around for quite a while. TVTropes tells me that the earliest known example is an Egyptian tale from 2300-2100 BC. More classical examples include the Canterbury Tales, 1001 Arabian Nights, and The Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare. Oh, and the Odyssey, and Tolkien’s The Book of Lost Tales, Wuthering Heights, even I, Robot. Oh, and Jesus’s Parables in the Bible.

You get my point.

Frame stories seem to fall into two categories: 1) the frame story is a separate story to the main story, and 2) the narrator of the main story (as a character in the frame story) is directly tied to the main story, and, in fact, may merge the main and frame stories near the end.

I’ll give examples. For the first instance, a mother finds her son doing something stupid/dangerous/immoral, what have you. She tells him a tale about someone who learned their lesson never to do such things. At no point do the characters from the frame story directly impact the main story, or vice versa.

For the second, same set-up. Mother is telling her son this story, but at the end we learn that she knew and/or was there for the events of the main story, or even that the main story is still happening, at which point, the main story becomes merged with the frame, and events continue from there. (An excellent example of this is The Orphan’s Tale: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente.)

Personally, I prefer the second, when there’s more of a point to the frame story existing, when there’s some link between the two instead of just someone telling someone else a story. (Like in Frankenstein!)

What do you think, Squiders? Excellent literary device, or unnecessary addition? What are some of your favorites?

Writing About a Place You’ve Never Been

I’m working on getting a novel ready for publication later this year, and part of it takes place in Greece. I have never been to Greece. I am extremely unlikely to get to Greece between now and when the book is due to my editor.

So, what’s a girl to do?

Luckily, we live in an age when there’s a ridiculous amount of information floating around, easily accessible to the masses.

Unlike a fictional place where you can design everything yourself, if you write a real place wrong, readers that are familiar with that place will feel subtly (or not-so-subtly) at odds with your setting. It may ruin the book for them. That is a Bad Thing. (I should note that fictional places located in real places like, say, a small town in the middle of Greece, still need to feel appropriate for the overall setting even if the town itself doesn’t exist.)

I know I’ve had books ruined for me because Colorado is portrayed incorrectly, and I’d hate to do that to someone else.

So! What tools can we use to learn about a place we’ve never been?

1) Travel Books and Videos
These are great, because someone else has gone to wherever and taken the time to tell you all about it. What to expect from the people, the hotels, the food, the sights. Driving conditions, what languages are spoken, a recent history of the location, you name it. Travel videos don’t contain the same level of information as the books, but they do show you what the place looks like. It’s one thing to know whether or not there’s a forest somewhere, but it’s quite another to be able to see the size of the trees, how much undergrowth there is, and whether or not it’s moist enough for moss and ferns to grow on everything.

(My own go-to for all things Europe-related is Rick Steves. My husband always teases me, but the man knows what he’s talking about, and his books have a nice conversational tone to them, making them easy to read.)

2) Google Maps
Or, I suppose, the map program of your choice. You can see the layout of cities, check distances between places (how many days would it take to get from A to B in a carriage?), and use street view (which, while it may give you a nice view of whatever building, I like because you can see the cars and the pedestrians, which bring the city to life a little more than some staged publicity photo).

3) Google Images
I can’t help it, Google is going to take over the world. Google Images is fantastic, because you put in what you’re looking for (for example, I did “Greek forest”) and then you get every image on the internet that’s tagged something similar. You can click on a picture to see it bigger, and go to the website the picture is on and possibly find useful information pertaining to the subject at hand. And it helps you visualize your setting in your head, making it easier and more believable to write. I tend to save my favorite images somewhere so I can use them for inspiration.

4) Other People’s Travel Experiences
There’s whole websites out there designed specifically for people to blog about their travels. Not everyone makes theirs public, but you can see what people did, what experiences they had, and look at pictures they took.

Anything else you’d recommend, Squiders? Any places you’re doing research on at the moment?

Choosing Beta Readers

(Psst. If you haven’t voted in Tuesday’s poll, please do!)

One of the greatest tools in a writer’s toolbox is the beta reader. I can’t be sure, but I imagine that they’re called beta readers much for the same reason that a game is in beta. Essentially, beta readers read your draft for you and let you know what they think. This can be helpful for identifying plot holes, confusing sections, blatant errors like characters who miraculously changes names, and the occasional misplaced comma.

Beta readers can be more useful than a critique group because, in general, they read and consider a whole work as opposed to a chapter at a time. (Though critique groups are helpful, especially for polishing.)

But beta readers vary in their feedback. Some are craft oriented, some story oriented. Some are more experienced than others. So how do you know who to ask?

I’ve compiled a basic list of possible beta readers. Realize that what you specifically find helpful probably varies from what someone else finds helpful.

1) Other Writers in Your Own Genre
Other writers can be some of the most effective beta readers, because they tend to be more familiar with writing craft and plotting, allowing them to tell you exactly why something isn’t working and offer possible fixes. Other writers in your genre also are familiar with genre tropes and trends, but you may run into issues where their personal preferences for certain tropes color their vision of your story, resulting in suggestions to change the story to what they like.

2) Other Writers in Other Genres
Like writers in your genre, writers in other genre have an understanding of writing craft that helps identify problems and fixes easier. They also can bring in lessons from their genres, helping you craft a better-rounded work. However, people tend to write in the genres they read, and you may find that writers of other genres just aren’t interested in your genre.

3) Readers in Your Genre
Readers in your genre can be helpful because they know and love your genre, and can help you judge whether or not your story appeals to your target audience. They may be able to point out areas that are confusing and voice concerns about arcs and other issues, but they may not be able to articulate what, exactly, isn’t working.

4) Friends and Family
Approach this section last. It’s really hit or miss whether or not they’ll be that helpful. The issue with friends and family is that, sometimes, they’re just so pleased that you’ve written a book, and they love it because they love you, and they may not want to give you criticism because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. That’s not always the case, however. My mother and sister are some are the first people I approach with a new novel because they’re both writers themselves. (When I finished my first novel, I was so pleased, but my mother pursed her lips and gave me an article about characterization.)

The nice thing is that after awhile you’ll learn who is helpful and who isn’t, and why, allowing you to select the best people for your purposes.

Anything to add, Squiders? Any pointers you’ve come across?

2013 Blog Direction

First, a little horn-tooting: I’ve got a new story up over at Turtleduck Press, a haunting tale of family secrets. You don’t have to take my word for it, though–here are a couple things readers have said to me about it:

“It’s a great story, subtle and building.” –KD Sarge
“Subtle, wistful, and a little creepy.” –Siri Paulson
“It’s pretty chilling.” –Erin Zarro
“That gave me goosebumps. That captivated me. It was WONDERFULLY written.” -a reader on a message board

So, you know, up to you. Now, onto business. I have a poll here. Please let me know which types of posts you’re enjoying, and which sorts of posts you’d like more of, either through the poll or the comments, and I shall try to be accommodating. Otherwise, I hope everyone’s having a lovely Fat Tuesday.

(I get PANCAKES for dinner. I am so excited, it’s like I’m six.)

The Rhythm of Words

A lot of writers, when they write, just write. That’s all that’s truly important at the beginning, getting the words out onto paper. But the flow of your words and sentences is actually a tool that can be used to help set the tone of the scene. Sometimes your words can be used to twist the reader’s emotions.

I’m going to break this up into two sections: word choice and sentence length.

Word Choice

The words you choose can directly influence your setting and tone. Simplistic words used in a complex setting sells your work short, whereas “five dollar words” (such as sesquipedalian) are out of place in some works. Do you want to break the tension of your story because the reader has to go find a dictionary?

Likewise, the number and type of adjectives you use can have an impact. Flow-y, whimsical words may work in a romance or children’s story, but they would seem out of place in a thriller or a mystery. You can create a bleak landscape for your characters through your words alone.

Sentence Length

Sentence length can directly influence your reader. For example, short sentences up tension. This has been a tool of thriller and mystery writers for years. Short sentences cause readers to read faster, speeding up the pace of your narrative, making the reader feel like everything is happening at once and oh God isn’t it exciting.

On the other hand, long sentences let a reader slow down, bask in their surroundings, have a nice bit of respite.

Admittedly, you do have to have some variety in your sentence length, but these are skills you can utilize when necessary.

Writers, do you have any additional thoughts on these two? Any tricks you like to remember in your own writing?

A Protest Against Unnecessary Darkness

It’s entirely possible this is going to come off as fandom rage. If so, I apologize in advance. I try to stay pretty level-headed about such things, but I am not always successful.

I’ve noticed this trend, probably over the last decade, of taking something and redoing it darker. Sometimes this works awesomely. A lot of times it works awesomely, actually, but it’s almost become a requirement, and it sometimes seems like you can’t find genre anymore that it isn’t dark. The grittier and more realistic, the better.

Sometimes, though, it seems like this added darkness takes away from the original idea.

I’m kind of grumpy about this lately because, as I’m sure you know, J.J. Abrams has been named as the director of the new Star Wars movies. And these articles keep using the phrase “since Abrams saved Star Trek.”

Herein lies the fandom rage. Was Star Trek dead? No. Did it have issues? Yes. I’ve been a Trekkie practically since birth, but even I didn’t watch Enterprise, and I don’t consider any of the Next Gen movies past First Contact in my own personal head cannon. It got bogged down in its own mythology, and the people in charge were seemingly unable to come up with any decent new directions. And it did come down to the point where it seemed like people were beating a dead horse.

So, yes, the 2009 Star Trek movie did some good things for the franchise. It got new fans interested, a lot of whom went back and then fell in love with the series. But it didn’t really feel like Trek. It gets away with it with the whole “alternate reality” thing. To an extent.

(I have plot and character issues, but then this really will turn into fandom rage, so we’ll leave that be for now.)

And now, we have Star Trek Into Darkness coming out in May, and I find myself feeling very anxious about the state of Trek. It’s got “darkness” right there in the title, and I’m worried that Abrams is going to take away the thing that separates Trek from most of the rest of science fiction: its optimism.

Star Trek has always showed the good in humanity. We didn’t destroy our planet. We didn’t wipe ourselves out, we weren’t invaded by extraterrestrials. We banded together, we formed a peaceful planet-wide government. We went out into the universe, peacefully, and made friends. Look at us! Hoorah!

Sure, there’s some darkness there. There’s torture, genocide, murder, conspiracies, you name it. But overall, people are good. Humanity is good.

Or at least it was, in Roddenberry’s time.

But we can’t have that in today’s culture. Everything is dark, gritty, and humanity is doomed to failure. Why? Why do we need that? Why, when real life is bad enough, do we need darkness in our fiction too? Why can’t things be happy and rainbows and unicorns every now and then?

Opinions, Squiders? About the trend towards darkness, Star Trek, or anything in between?