Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Answering Review Request "Out of the Gray"

Patricia Gilliam asked me to read her novel "Out of the Gray". It's a science fiction political intrigue focusing on relationship between the Hanarians and the people of Earth. I will examine plot, characters, and polish and then assign a grade.
The first scene is terrific for setting the tone: a human politician and the hanarian ambassador are debating in a senate chamber on a long standing and controversial issue, and their sons wander into the hall because they're bored and strike up a friendly conversation. One of them even lends the other a dollar because a vending machine ate the first one. It does a great of job of (for lack of a better word) 'humanizing' the Hanarians so the following plot will play out like its author wants it to: turn the 'evil invading aliens' trope on its head.

Hanarias are people from another planet that have obviously developed casual space travel. They come to Earth hoping to be 'good neighbors' so to speak. They offer more advanced medical technology in exchange for nothing and the humans refuse because they believe the Hanarians are up to something sinister in vein of the Scary Dogmatic Aliens trope. There are no such things in in this story but there are Scary Dogmatic Humans. The Earth Independence Party may as well be a cult for all the controlling, indoctrination and race fervor they have. This is what I like most about the plot; exploiting political paranoia.

The EIP was born out of human fear of the Hanarians; their platform appears to be 'vote for us or the Hanarians will take over the planet'.  On one hand, this is funny because a politician will talk about these evil, sinister, unrelatable aliens and then the scene will cut away to one of them, who looks nothing but human and is bemoaning the fact that there's nothing good on TV.  On the other hand, it's not funny when people are kidnapped, experimented on, and killed because a xenophobe thinks it's the only way to avert the domination/extinction of his own species.

I detect two problems with this story: one of them is an element of the Evil Plan stretching of my Willing Suspension of Disbelief and the inconclusive ending.

For the first, the Evil Plan involves wiping out the entire Hanarian population with a bio weapon that they developed from something they didn't have until a day or two before they launched the attack.  The scale of such an endeavor; studying the poison, reproducing for proof of concept, reproducing it to the necessary amount to cover so many people, and then transporting all that undetected across space to not one but two planets....it's mind boggling.

For the second, I like a conclusive ending in stories. It doesn't have to be perfect but I want a clear indication that this book's plot has been resolved even if the Big Bad it is still around and still doing evil things.  Here I feel there's more of a 'the worst is over' kind of thing than a 'the day is saved but watch out for the next threat' kind of thing.  I feel like the epilogue would have been better used for this purpose than what is in there.

Overall I like the characters. The main ones are well developed and the minor ones are less so. It's hard to get a grasp on them at first because the story is split between two deuteragonist, Alex Verin and Rica Miller, and they never intersect. Thus, it's like there are two 'main casts' with stories running parallel to each other and influencing each other.

I like Jenard, the Hanarian ambassador, because of his sense of humor. He has an easy-going demeanor and makes jokes, some of them at his own expense. He can also be serious and there are hidden depths to him.
Rica and Alex I also like. They're admirable in their strength and desire to be righteous but at the same time they are not a 'I'm the main hero and I do everything' kind of teenage protagonist.  In this kind of story with what they have it would be weird. Instead, I feel like Jenard is 'the hero' of this story, who is older than both of them put together and a father himself.

Like I said, there are no villains this story but in terms of characters that is a literal statement. The only 'villain' to receive characterization is Kesseler and he doesn't make a formal appearance until after the halfway point. Instead there's an atmosphere that makes the EIP itself a character; a primordial As Long A There Is Evil kind of villain.


I spotted one or two errors but nothing bad or extensive enough to affect the score

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Out of the Gray" a B+

Click here for my next review (which was not a review request): Ophelia

Click here for the my previous review request: Ambrose Beacon

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Importance and Efficient Use of Mooks

This week's post is about the "mook" which is the Literary Term for the generic, low level henchmen employed by villains and killed by heroes. Naturally, this post will be most useful in action/adventure stories and otherwise genre that involves a good deal of fighting but it is useful in other genre too. I'll get to that latter.

A mook goes by many names ( "baddies", "goons," "scrubs," "drones," "small fry," "flunkies," "pawns," "toadies," "grunts," "minions," "lackeys," "underlings," "henchpersons," and "Cannon Fodder") but they all perform the same function: to be slaughtered by the heroes to show how tough they are or otherwise provide a sense of danger.  While some stories like to focus on the mook to give them personalization or backstories or the importance of this otherwise unimportant character, the classic mook is canon fodder. They'll likely wear helmets for depersonalization (and in live action so the same handful of extras can take the role of dozens.)

One prominent example are the Storm Troopers from Star Wars; those movies would not be so exciting if these guys weren't constantly firing at Luke and the Empire as a whole would not seem so threatening if it were nothing but Darth Vader and his non-action officials.

Another example are the Puddies from Power Rangers. Sometimes they fulfilled some goal or other for the villain, but most of the time they show up simply so the rangers can show off their martial arts before the Monster of The Week shows Up.

I'm going to use an example from a book that I recently reviewed to illustrate both proper and improper use of mooks. The book is  "Ambrose Beacon" by Alena Gouveia. (You can read that review here).

In that book, the initial enemies for the Ambrose family and their allies are these wolf shape-shifter demon things.  They are classic mooks in that they are a faceless mob of bottom-tier villains. One character explicitly states that their human forms are so non-descript that you couldn't pick them out of a crowd if you were looking for them. They are also classic mooks in that they serve a narrative purpose; establish the powers and skills of the heroes.

Before this there were demonstrations: Dinah snapped a metal bar in two and Cole spoke with wolves but there's nothing like beating on bad guys to really establish what the heroes are capable of. This is because the heroes don't have to hold back. Mooks are treated as Always Chaotic Evil nobodies and so the audience does not mourn them no matter how many are killed. Again, this helps when they are genuine monsters. What happens in these fights is really cool: Dinah grapples with one of them, Cole shapeshifts into a bear and one of their teachers blasts another with a beam of magic power. This is one of my favorite parts of the story. However, there is a problem.

Miss.Gouveia repeats this basic scene structure several times over and it becomes tedious. In Star Wars, there was a mix up of dangers: Storm Troopers, the sewer monster, Obi-Wan's fight with Darth Vader etc. This prevents the mooks from becoming tedious. In Power Rangers there is a sense of escalation; first the swarm of mooks, then the Monster of the Week, and then the villain would say "Make My Monster Grow!" and the final battle of the episode would be a giant monster vs a giant robot. Ambrose Beacon does not do either of these. Instead it's always an endless horde of the same sort of bland monsters so the scenes run together. In a later scene there are monsters that are stated to be 'more powerful' than the first monster but if there was anything that distinguished these two breeds of monster then I missed it.

Mooks can be used for more than just action scenes. Their purpose of establishing heroic skill or providing danger can be used in other genres. What they all have in common is that they have little to no effect on the main plot; they're like spice or a side dish. They support the main course.  For example,

A medical drama could use a series of minor cases of diagnosis to establish the skill of its protagonist doctor.  House M.D used clinic duty to demonstrate Dr.House's rapid diagonistic ability and his bitter personality.

A romance novel could feature a series of bad suitors to illustrate the difficulty its protagonist has in finding a special someone one. Ballads were fond of bit characters failing an Engagement Challenge to set it up as difficult for The Hero.

Mooks are useful at the start of the plot. They establish the strength of the heroes to demonstrate for the audience that they are ready to move on to bigger and better things. I suppose one could use a Zerg Rush to show power in numbers but then you run into the Conversation of Ninjitsu, or heroic Character Death.  At that point it's better to use single named villains but that's a post for another day.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Answering Review Request: Ambrose Beacon

Alena Gouveia asked me to read "Ambrose Beacon". It's about demons attacking this family because one of the children is the Chosen One. I will evaluate plot, characters and polish before assigning a grade.

The prologue is fantastic. It delivers exposition and plot points without bogging down the plot, it has quick and effective characterization, and it is exciting and engaging. However, this made me worried. Whenever I see an excellent prologue, the rest of the book is poor. I don't know why this is this but it generally happens and that is the case here.
After the prologue with Fair Folk and demons and End of the World stuff there is a long stretch of mundane life with the Ambrose family. It works for characerization (I'll get to that in the next section) but it feels so out of place that it could be a separate story. This lasts until chapter nine. Getting there was difficult and the plot did not pick up at that point.
This is because the plot consists of the children running back and forth between their country home and their neighbor's (about 5 miles away)  and always chased by endless numbers of nameless demons that they ultimately kill anyways because another ally shows up or another Ambrose kid develops superpowers. The finale differs only in that it takes place somewhere else. I felt like I was reading the same scene over and over again, complete with someone saying "I'm More Hero Than Thou."

I'd say my biggest problem with the plot is paranoia, mistrust, and a general refusal for all the good guys to get on the same page and cooperate. You'd think that if all you need to do to create a superpowered savior was to create some half-elves, then there would be a dating service or something a thousand years back. On the other hand, this process is implied to be a crapshot and also that there's a long history genocidal-level bad blood between the two species.  On a third hand, you'd think the Fair Folk would get over it after two thousand years.

 However, there are some aspects of this plot that I liked.

I like how the Adults Are Not Useless which is normally not the case in stories like these. Indeed, one could argue that Harper, the children's uncle, is The Hero of this story because of his greater importance to the plot, protector status, and greatest character development. Jerry and Larry, two mundane police officers, take down just as many demons as the superpowered kids.
I also like how Arianna, the children's mother, dealt with the problem of 'which one is the Chosen One'. It is a delightful twist on this kind of plot line and to talk further of it would be spoilers.

As said in the Plot section, chapters 1-8 do not advance the plot. This is because they are devoted to character development. There are a dozen characters to introduce and most of them are plot significant so the story takes a time out to develop them. It is successful there. By the time the demons show up, all the characters are sufficiently individualized: Billie is the cutie, Louis the class clown, and Jerry is the father trying to balance work and parenting and tolerating his brother-in-law etc.

The problem is two fold: 1.) it's boring and 2.) it feels out of place.
After the mage vs demons thing in the prologue it felt like a let down. There's a plot line about a school dance, school bullies, parent-child relationship problems, and other things. It was a struggle to get through this stuff because it was boring. I don't pick up a fantasy book to read about this sort of thing.
I like to see character driven plots and that is the case here. Every event is driven by character decision (except for one Contrived Coincidence via Exact Eavesdropping) and we can see that thought process taking place. The problem here is that seeing many people's thought processes about many events bogs down the plot. Another problem is the all the ambrose kids and many of the adults have the same reactions to things, so it all muddles together when they fight demons, which is constant.
This book does not require proof reading; there are no spelling or grammar errors. It does, however, require editing.
As elsewhere in this review, a lot of stuff bogs down the plot. The PDF I read was 404 pages total and very little happened in that time period. Instead of rapid page turning (which I assume is the intention) I feel like I'm sloughing through it. Thinking of it as a Tv show, I'd say there's four episodes worth of plot material here; five tops. When you have a 400 page book, I'd expect something closer to 12.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Ambrose Beacon" a C

Click here for the next review request: Out Of The Grey

Click here to read the previous review request "Blade Song"

This was a free review request. I received nothing for this review other than a free copy of the book.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Originality is a Myth

Now that I have your attention, I will qualify this post's title. "100 percent originality" is a myth. No one can be one hundred percent original regardless of their medium because so many people have come before you. "Standing on the shoulders of giants" as the saying goes. To find these giants, I will use an idea common to the culture of Ancient Rome.

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, there was little in the way of literary innovation or experimentation. This was because everyone though it was pointless.  No one believed they could do epics better than Homer so no one tried. The idea was to meet that level through imitation.
Personally, I think this idea is absurd. I understand it but I believe it is defeatist and ultimately self-fulfilling. While I don't think I will surpass the talents of my favorite authors (not any time soon at any rate) it is a goal that drives me to improve. Nevertheless, I find writing is more fun when I add myself onto the chain they created rather than trying to make myself different for the sake of being different.

When I was in college, there was a random encounter with another student and for some reason I talked about my desire to write a fantasy novel. This student asked me what made mine "different from all the others" and I gave my response but I don't feel he believed me. Looking back, I wonder why he thought originality was the most important question to ask.  Trying too hard to be different is a novice mistake.  (To read about this idea in more detail, click here)

Tvtropes will illustrate my point.

TvTropes lists the conventions of storytelling and all the many works that have used them, from today all the way back to the oldest works we know of such as The Iliad, Epic of Gilgamesh, etc. As a result of this, the Troper Hive Mind has produced "just for fun" pages that deal with originality: The Tropeless Tale and The Zeroth Law of Trope Examples.

The Tropeless Tale is a thought experiment concerning a hypothetical author that tried to write a story without using tropes. He couldn't write a character on any point of the hero-villain spectrum and his plot couldn't be anywhere on the scale of Comedy-Tragedy; in fact, he couldn't write about characters or plot at all. He couldn't even write about formless nothing because there are tropes for that. In the end he decided that the challenge was impossible because even if he succeeded and wrote a story without tropes, the story would only create new tropes which means he would retroactively fail.

The Zeroth Law of Trope Examples is also known as  "Shakespeare Did It First". The Bard wrote many plays and sonnets and other literary works and within them one can find any number of tropes. There's Lampshade Hanging, Villain Protagonist, and even a "Your Mom" joke. To further drive the point home, Shakespeare himself was not wholly original because he adapted much older stories or historical events.

Originality is a myth and this is a good thing. There's no need to excessively worry about originality; write the story you want to write. Of course, you shouldn't plagiarize or infringe on someone's copyright but there's nothing wrong with seeking inspiration or doing a homage. The bottom line is that 100 percent originality, while something to strive for, is an Impossible Task.

For other posts about originality see Inspirational Monday-TvTropes, Originality and Tradition and   "Literary Innovation Is Not Always Good",

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

How to Write a Book Description

Today's post is about Book Descriptions.

Whether it's a hard copy or an e-book, a good description can make or break a sale. If it's for an agent/publisher query or a review request then the premise is what they see. Obvious stuff, yes, but the English Major has to start his argument with a thesis. Anyway, this post will focus on the Don'ts and Dos of writing a book description.


Theses are things to avoid when writing your premise book description: self-praise, long winded descriptions, clich├ęs, and summaries. (By the way, some of this stuff is from my review request policy).

Personally,  I can't stand it when writers tell me how 'original' they are. One person even told me their work was going to 'redefine the fantasy genre' or something like that. No one is 100 percent original, myself included. Also, don't write about 'exciting' or 'passionate' or any other adjective. The book description should speak for itself. The last person whose opinion on the book you want is the author because they're biased. Just stick to the book itself.

 Briefly talk about the protagonist (or main characters) and their problem. I once read somewhere that the premise should be short enough for an elevator pitch; no one can clearly communicate three paragraphs in the time in takes for an elevator to travel three floors. Instead, go for three sentences. If you can manage one sentence, that's all the better. It's like a haiku; tremendous meaning contained in the fewest number of syllables. If you can concentrate your book's greatness into a small space than you're more likely to attract attention and interest.

By the same token, don't sacrifice your book's uniqueness for brevity. If your premise boils down to  "average guy fights evil thing to save the world", "find the Macguffin" or "boy meets girl and they kiss" then it's likely to be passed over. Find a golden mean between laconic and descriptive.

Between these two you shouldn't have to worry about the third; summarizing. Don't write a description that summarizes the work. If you do that then the prospective reader/publisher feels like they've already read the book.  I found one book that said (paraphrased) 'Protagonist does this and that and when they arrive at their destination they uncover a secret'. It was so forgettable that I can't remember the book's title. All you should do is set the stage.


These are the things you should do when writing a premise: set the stage, be concise, and add factual details.

For setting the stage, you can start with the conflict: who the protagonist is, what their problem is, and a few things about the setting.  By the time you convey all this, you should have a paragraph. If the prospective reader is into your genre then these three things should be enough to hook them. It gives them what they need without revealing anything that would spoil the story. If they don't like these three things then they're not likely to enjoy your book.

By the same token, be concise. Readers/publishers/reviewers etc. are busy people and don't want to spend five minutes reading an extended premise to find out what the heck the book is about. If you can stun them with three sentences then they're likely to pick up/stamp/download etc.

Aside from that you can add factual details. Editions, for instance, are a good to add if you've made substantial changes. Say you published before you hired a professional editor and now you've got reviews stating "Horrible grammar!" or "needs an editor". If you mention how you've done this in the book description for the current edition then the reader can dismiss these red flags (at least I hope so, because this is what happened to my first book). Awards are another good thing because they are objective praise. An award says "I wrote a great book" but because it came from someone else it avoids the problems of self-praise. It's about creditability.

An example of a great premise is this book I reviewed the other day "Never Trust a Dead Man". It sets the stage, it's about a paragraph in length and there is no self-praise to be found. It was such a fantastic premise that I bought the thing immediately.

If you'd like to read the descriptions for my books, I have a page for that. Please let me know if you think I practice what I preach or not.

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lost Keys and Plot Branches

A plot can branch out in many directions depending on the actions of its characters.

I lost my keys today when I was running errands. After retracing my steps and failing to find them I thought about my options: call family for a ride, call a car assistance hotline, or continue looking for the keys. Ultimately I found them and it got me thinking about plot. Specifically, it got me thinking about how character decisions guide the plot.

Calling for help had a greater chance of success because there was a possibility that my keys were somewhere in a big and dark parking lot, but on the other hand, it would only be a temporary solution because my car would still be locked in a parking lot. It would also mean waiting for help to arrive which meant I could continue looking after placing the call. Finding the keys was the quickest permanent solution but it had a lower chance of success. Depending on the option I chose my evening would branch out in different directions and affect future events.

It's like those 'Chose Your Own Adventure' stories or video games with multiple endings. Depending on the reader/player's choice of actions, different events unfold. Thus, I feel the need to reiterate something from a previous post.

Characters determine plot; Plot does not guide characters.
I like permanent solutions so it was within my character to seek out the quickest permanent solution until it was no longer reasonable to do so. That's character driven. A plot driven scenario would have me go straight to my cell phone to trigger an event for the story the author wanted to write. My own characterization would not be important; a facilitator of events instead of the driver of events. Personally, I dislike those types of stories because they are more vulnerable to Fridge Logic and such.
For other posts concerning characters guiding plots see Character Action List and Characters are everything. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Answering Review Request: Blade Song

Jean Gill asked me to read her historical novel "Blade Song" which is the second book in her "The Troubadours" series. She had previously requested a review for the first book, Song at Dawn, and I rated it highly (A+, you can read the review here) so I was excited for the sequel. Now I have mixed feelings. I will examine Plot, Characters, and Polish and then assign a grade.


There's good and bad in this one. I'll do the former and then latter.
For the good there's the reconstruction of the
Macguffin trope, same quality of research and the depth of scheming. A 'macguffin' is an object that starts conflict because people fight each other to get it and is meaningless in and of itself. This is not the case here. The fact that Dragonetz is carrying a Jewish holy book that is fought over by a Muslim and a Christian is symbolic of multicultural 'Otra mar' (Middle East) and of the Grey and Grey Morality of the setting. As for the research and scheming, they are on the level with the first book. There's Islamic poetry written in two languages (I assume one is Arabic), tensions between groups (and there are many groups) and varying levels of medical knowledge depending on the character. I very much enjoyed these parts.

For the bad there's Dragonetz's improbable fame in a wide setting and Estela's hangnail plot. For the first, there are five people that want to recruit Dragonetz as their general/military trainer and they are: the ruler of the Saracen Muslims, both rulers of Christian Jerusalem (de-jury and de-facto) and the grandmasters of the Knights Templar and Hospitaler Knights. The backbone of the plot is an elaborate scheme by two of these people to recruit him or kill him so no one else can have him. It stretches my Willing Suspension of Disbelief because I don't see Dragonetz as that valuable and he doesn't either. For the second, Estela has a side plot completely unrelated to Dragonetz and when she is connected, she becomes an extra; it feels like a hangnail.

This book feels more loose and unorganized because it is on a grand scale. The first book is confined to a single city in France and so it is a smaller game board with fewer players. The second book is spread from France to the Holy Land and many more people are involved. When I realized that, I also realized that this book is written the same way as its predecessor: It has the same multi player scheming, it has the same research into historical figures and trappings, it has the same commitment to character motivation. It's the Macguffin plot that can be blamed for the bulk of the problems and it made so much sense at the end of the first that I am willing to forgive it.


There's good and bad here too. The good is the web of alliances and information that connect characters. The bad is the downgraded villains.

The thing I liked about the story is the web of alliances and motives and knowledge. "Sticky threads" as it's called in the story. One has to be aware of a lot of information and who is aware of what information and from what perspective each character views this information from. The climax is dizzying because of this but that's what makes it so impressive; Miss. Gill kept it all straight. It lends to the atmosphere of the setting because keeping track of this web is what rulers and generals and merchants, etc do everyday. It's the 'everyday scheming', as contrasted with 'epic scheming' that I liked so much about the first book.

The villains seem less competent and more petty. Nur ad-Din and Melisende treat Dragonetz' book like a bauble and so they seem like children with nothing to better to do. De Raccon and Miguel likewise are like children plucking the wings off flies because their main motivation is sadism for imagined slights. This is easy to overlook because Bar Philipos, the main and plot moving villain (
The Heavy), is exempted from this. Bar Philipos is a good villain. He's dangerous and evil but he's not pure evil and not without an understandable motive. He's much more competent and acts more like his age.

Dragnetz' angst is good. In the first book it was implied that he was disillusioned by the second crusade but it wasn't until now that the source of it all was revealed. That part was interesting. I like seeing the change in character from flashback to present day and on through the story; a flawed knight but a knight nonetheless.


No spelling or grammar errors. I feel some parts could be edited out but they are interesting on their own terms; characterization and such.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Blade Song" a B+

Click here to read the next review Request: "Ambrose Beacon"

Click here for the previous review (which wasn't a review request):
Never Trust a Dead Man

The review for the third book, "Plaint for Provence" is now available.

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Never Trust a Dead Man" is a solid mystery.

I've been reading Never Trust a Deadman by  Vivian Vande Velde lately. It's part of my effort to clean out my personal queue so I can focus more on the reviewer one. I wasn't disappointed; this is a great book. It's basic premise is a whodunit; Selwygn investigates the murder of a fellow named Farold because he was accused of the murder himself. What attracted my attention is that this is fantasy style whodunit; Sewlwygn revived Farold in the former of a bat to aid his investigation by making a deal with a witch. I find it the mark of a great mystery that its appeal is not solely in suspense and the identity of the culprit and this has much more besides.


The story begins in-media res with a mob coming to arrest Selwyn. I like this as a starting place because, for all the reader knows, Selwyn might have done it. As the evidence mounts, I found myself siding with the mob against him because it is a convincing case. This makes them seem less like assholes despite their behavior. On the other hand, it is a scary thought if he is innocent because there's nothing he can do about his kangaroo trial and sentencing.

Another thing I like about the start is that is takes its time. 70 pages before the premise is fulfilled 'investigating a murder with a bat'. The whole book is 194 pages. I like it because there is no rushing and everything is fully set up for the main event.

Overall I like how the mystery developed and information was revealed. Selwyn keeps a running tally of suspects and their motivations.  There's one Contrived Coincidence that stretches my Suspension of Disbelief but other than I don't see holes in the story.


This is why I like the book so much; characters and their interaction. I did not read this book to find out the killer's identity but to watch the leads interact on their way to their conclusion. Their bickering cooperation is funny and I enjoyed seeing them develop as the town itself was developed through retrospective information. 

From the back cover I was afraid Selwyn would be a This Loser Is You sort of guy but he's not like that at all; the book spends zero pages making him relatable or 'average' or anything like that.

Twists of character were also a delight. This is the kind of story that opens up a can of worms and makes other things come to light as Selwyn digs deeper for the one truth he's interested in.


This story is written from Selwyn's prospective and in limited third person. This is a good tone for this book because the reader sees the world as Selwyn perceives it but without the self-conscious 'I' getting in the way. It works because it is consistent. 
I didn't see anything in the way of grammar or spelling errors.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Never Trust a Dead Man" a B+

Click here for the next review (which was a review request) Blade Song

Click here for the previous review (which wasn't a review request) Eragon

Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Friday, October 25, 2013

Making the Most of Trouble

I was going to post something about writing back cover premises last Tuesday but stuff came up and so I wrote my weekly post today. Initially I was bothered by the delays and other tasks but then I realized something and decided to make that my post for this week. Making the most of trouble.
A lecturer in college one said "Plot is nothing more than a character in trouble".  If your character never have troubles or encounter problems, then it will likely be a boring story. It's not impossible to write a story that has no serious or minor trouble but it is harder and it narrows the field of possibilities for the writer to explore. .
It's also glass half full sort of thing. When something bad happens one should strive to make the best of it and in my case that means looking for a way to apply the situation for a storyline. Using this trouble to my advantage made me feel better about the trouble. "Not a waste of time" sort of thing.
For instance, waiting for a pick up at an airport can become the frame narrative for a story; Forest Gump did something like this. Computer trouble can become a metaphor for plot conflict; rooting out viruses becomes identifying and resolving the problems plaguing a town (for a Tomato In the Mirror , you can reveal that the town is a computer, or visa versa.)  Alchemy was born in the kitchen, and because Alchemy is Magic, one can turn a cooking disaster into fodder for a magical mishap in a fantasy story or something more science based for a science fiction or historical fiction.

While my troubles this week delayed by writing progress on Looming Shadow, it provided the impetus for a frame of reference that I otherwise wouldn't have thought of. There's a scene I've written an outline for but lacked meat for it and this frame of reference provides that meat. I'm almost glad that it happened because I used it to my advantage.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Eragon" Middle of the Road Fantasy

I don't understand why some people hate this book and I don't understand why some people love it. I myself am 'meh' about it. It's an ok book.

I'm not going to discuss its orginality or lack thereof in this post. I already addressed that in another post (Originality and Tradition). This review post will be exclusively about the book itself, standing alone.


I find no fault with the plot. There's a cause and effect from point A at the farm to point B on the road and point C traveling to the Varden's HQ. Even the reason for Arya to send the dragon egg to Eragon's general location is given a reason.

The book gets extra points here for the development from Farm Boy to Rebel Fighter. Instead of jumping straight into fighting The Empire, he's more into revenge. Considering his uncle has been killed by agents of The Empire he's more interested in killing them then heroics. For a boy of his age and upbringing, I can imagine he would more interested in that. A good deal of the book is spent in this regard. In addition to character action I also like this because it provides time for training. A few months while traveling isn't as a good as traditional knight training but it's more realistic than sending him straight into combat fresh off the farm. He learns about the empire outside of his remote northern village and comes to the conclusion that fighting the empire is a just course of action but this takes time. 

Some parts are dry and some are boring. Training and traveling are interesting but after a while I'd like something to happen to move the plot along. There is not enough to sustain my interest with world building and at the same time enough to bog down the plot.

Other parts I'd like to cut out entirely. The one about the three mountains and their cult was interesting from a world building perspective but it was made to be more important than it was and the plot point connected to it wasn't significant enough to qualify as red herring.  The search for the uncle killers dragged too long for so little plot movement. I'd shrink that by a third or more.

The final battle is pretty cool but the book ends on a mysterious not-quite-cliffhanger moment. The battle is won but there's little sense of resolution. It's a prod into the next book which I always find distasteful.


 Characters are good too. I don't understand why Eragon is called a Gary Stu. Yes he has magic and a dragon and is a fast learner but he still needs help from allies and can't resolve anything by himself. At the end of the first book his list of solo acomplishments is zero. Brom does a fine job as the Mentor Archetype. Murtagh makes a great foil; world weary, iron willed but non-magical, etc. Arya distinguishes herself beyond the role of Herald or Damsel in Distress and takes part in the final battle.

The problems are the villains. They're missing for some 90 percent of the book and that's why a lot of it is boring. Villains provide conflict and without conflict there is less of a plot.

Eragon is not present at his uncle's death and only catches glimpses of his murderers before the plot moves on.
The Shade is not formally introduced until way into the plot (some 200 or so pages) and only makes two appearances.
The Big Bad, Emperor Galbatroix, doesn't appear at all. I once read about a fanfic that uses this to support the notion that Galbatroix isn't involved in any of these events, that everything was done at the Shade's orders and Galbatroxi isn't evil at all. In my experience, that is an easy argument to make.


I was wary while reading this book because I've heard of clumsy scene changes and purple prose. I found little of either.  Spelling and grammar looked good too.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Eragon" a C

Click here for the next review (which wasn't a review request): Never Trust a Dead Man

Click here for the previous review (which was a review request): "The Amber Treasure"

Monday, October 7, 2013

Inspiration Day: Author Independence

From now on I'm going to celebrate Inspirational Monday on the first day of the month (If not on the first then within the first week) because for the last several months I've missed it.  The first Monday could be the 7th and I would either go early or miss it entirely.  Thus, I will call it Inspiration Day.

When I thought about this it reminded me that I control every aspect of my writing. I have been an independent author for almost two years now.  It has been time consuming but I love the degree of freedom that comes with it. This Indie Freedom is my inspiration post for October.

1. Publishing

I have no deadlines but those that I set for myself. If I don't think the book is ready then I don't publish it. This way I can make it the best it can be. Naturally I'm not always correct on when that time comes (see the posts on beta reading and editing etc) but I choose who and how many opinions I seel and what I take away from them.

2. Pricing.

I control how much the book costs.  A publisher would not necessarily have my book's best interests in mind because they want to make a profit. If I want I can schedule days where the book is free and there's also a way to make it free every day in order to move more books at the expense of profit. It depends on my priorities. Since I'm more interested in getting my book into the hands of as many readers as possible, I chose a low cost; 99 cents.

3. Promotions

If I want to schedule a free day for this coming Friday, I can do that on my own initiative. If I want to buy a span of advertisements, then I can because it's my budget. Just the other day I decided to enter a contest (Reader's Favorite) and I'm considering a second (Wise Bear). I don't need anyone's approval because I am the Editor-in-Chief.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Answering Review Request: The Amber Treasure

Richard Denning asked me to read his novel "The Amber Treasure". It takes place in fifth-sixth century British Isles and involves territory wars between the Saxons and the Romano-Britons. I will examine plot, characters and polish and then assign a grade.


There are two plot threads here, personal and impersonal, and they are skillfully woven together. On one hand, the protagonist is looking to rescue his sister and retrieve a family heirloom, but on the other hand, the guy responsible is part of a plot to conquer Saxon land and drive the Saxons themselves back into the sea.

One might think that this is going to be a solo journey, or at most, a ragtag bunch of misfits but it's neither. It's more realistic than that. It's a formal militia marching to the guy's lair. It doesn't end there either. This story is a military campaign conducted by kings with Cedric, a greenhorn soldier, as it's emotional core. It's engaging and exciting but it is not hotblooded.
I call Amber Treasure the Blue Oni to 300's Red Oni. Instead of Large Hams and bullet time and badass boasts etc there is planning and rhetoric and reflection. This is because it is a first person account written by Cedric as an old man. Naturally he has had time to think about what happened and present everything the way a historian would.

Another thing I like to say about this book is "Your Sister Is In Another Castle". There is a repeated sense of 'not quite there yet' as Cedric continues his personal quest to retrieve what he lost when his village was attacked.

There's an Idiot Ball or two but it is understandable. I've read too many real life historical accounts about people dooming themselves because of idiotic actions to hold them against fictional characters.

There is a terrific resolution. This is a story that resolves it's current conflict but leaves open the path to future conflict. It's hard to strike that balance but Mr.Denning does a fantastic job.


I like Cedric, the protagonist. He's a heroic guy and a humble guy. He's aware of his faults. He fights bravely but is not a Conan the Barbarian expy. One of his friends is bigger and stronger while his other friend is faster and a better archer. This guy is the leader. Cedric the Narrator will comment on the qualities of a leader and how he possessed them in sufficient qualities to lead men as a teenager.
What I like about this is that Cedric states at the beginning that he writes this story to preserve what happened but he doesn't paint himself in a flattering light. Indeed, more often then not it's a self-deprecating light.

Cedric's friends, Edward and Cuthbert are minor characters and receive characterization appropriate to minor characters. I could say the same for the rest of the supporting case but what I want to focus on is the nameless background characters.

There is no such thing as Always Chaotic Evil in this story. Cedric often writes how their enemies are no different then himself and his community. Indeed, he points out several boys his age on the other side that are just as scared as him. Then he goes further and says that the Britons have more basis for calling the Saxons Always Chaotic Evil then the Saxons do the Britons because the Saxons migrated to the British Isles and took over and enslaved the natives.


No typos, no grammar errors. It has a thoughtful and reflective air about it. It wouldn't be hard for Mr.Denning to pose this as a real life historical diary.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Amber Treasure" an A+ (The third such for a novel)

Click here for the next review (not a request): "Eragon"

Click here for the previous review request "Welcome to Harmony"

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Originality and Tradition

I finished reading Eragon the other day and I decided to use it as the basis for a post on originality and genre tradition. (You can read my review here)

I read a lot of criticism about how the book supposedly rips off Star Wars or Tolkien or whatever. It's intense. The mods at Tvtropes had to lock the main page for The Inheritance Cycle due to flame wars about its originality or lack thereof.  I saw only superficial things that could have come from elsewhere.

1. Farm Boy that becomes a warrior
2. Raised by Uncle due to secret heritage.
3. Old mentor figures from the old order
4. Fallen order
5. Evil overlord traitor
6. Rescue a damsel in distress.

For each point I'll briefly explain the trope's appeal in the fantasy genre and widespread nature.

1. Farm Boy is a trope. 302 wicks
The first line on the page is "A staple of fantasy adventures" and indeed there is over three dozen entries on the page. Star Wars and Inheritance Cycle are only two of those.  There's a reason for this.

Most fantasy settings takes place in a pre-industrial society and in a pre-industrial society some ninety percent of the population is rural and involved in some form of agriculture or animal husbandry. Thus, the vast majority of boys in this setting are going to be farm boys.  There are other reasons besides:
1. Farm boys are in good physical condition
2. Farm boys likely know how to hunt
3. Farm Boys can serve as an Audience Surrogate
For these reasons they are a good place for an author to start; talk about the world from their ground level view and drop a few chekhov's skills along the way.

Finally for this trope, it's just a starting point. Anything can happen to this farm boy after he gets the Call to Adventure. (Itself a trope with so many subtropes it's an index)

2. Secret Legacy is a trope with 225 wicks.
Again Star Wars and Inheritance Cycle are only two of those and they have a different legacy. Ancestry and heritage are big deals and so a character learning that everything they have believed about themselves their whole lives is false turns their world upside down. Regardless of whether or not it's obvious to the reader it can be devastating for the character themselves. How they respond to it can vary from character to character and what the legacy itself is can vary.

3. Old Mentor is a trope with 245 wicks.
There are many mentor tropes and these two stories belong to the Mentor Archetype "A more experienced advisor or confidante to a young, inexperienced character". This did not begin with Star Wars and nor will it end with The Inheritance Cycle. In fact, it goes all the way back to one of the oldest stories we know: Odysseus entrusted his son to an old friend named "Mentor" which is where we get the word.

This has a basis in real life in the Master-Apprentice relationship. Back in the day it was the primary method to transmit trade skills across the generatioins. Naturally this is reflected in literature and why not? It's a good way to train and provide character development for younger characters.

4. The Order and Order Reborn  have 112 and 34 wicks respectively.
There are many such organizations of warriors in fiction and real life. One could say that both Star Wars and Inheritance Cycle are ripping off Arthurian Romance with its Knights of The Round Table. Both of them are different but they have the same general purpose and core. That's what makes them a trope. You even have one of them betraying the others and leading to the downfall of the whole Order.

An author can have both Doylist and Watsonian reasons for including an order of warriors. There's idea of safety in numbers, world building, character development, and the fact that Orders often have trappings like armor, creeds, and uniforms that make them look cool.

 5. Evil Overlord has 2,816 wicks

This high number is why TvTropes calls it "The archetypal High Fantasy and Science Fantasy (and sometimes Heroic Fantasy) villain. " People in Modern Age stories and Real Life are called this so comparing two stories based on this is grasping at straws. Going into all the ways that Galbatorix and Darth Vadar differ could be it's own blog post.

All stories need conflict and the villain is the primary means of creating conflict. For the fantasy genre, an evil overlord provides a target for the hero to bring down and a reason to venture into the Unknown World.

6. Damsel in Distress has over 6,000 wicks

The most unreasonable of them all and especially when compared to the two stories in question. Their jobs are different, their means of sending The Call are different, and the method of their rescue and its details are different. There is enough similarity and contrast that I could write a blog post about them.

I could go on but I believe I've made by point. TvTropes created The Tropeless Tale because no matter what you do, your story will contain tropes. Inevitably, someone will string enough together to call the story a rip off some other story.  In fact, I once read that Star Wars itself was criticized of ripping off Kirby's "New Gods" comics and Akira Kurosawa's film "The Hidden Fortress".  There's no shame in seeking inspiration from older stories. This is why genres exist; new storytellers continue the tradition of the old storytellers while adding their own imprint.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pros and Cons of Escapism

Today's post relates to last week's post about the dichotomy of The Protagonist and deals more precisely on my views concerning escapism.  In a nutshell, my feelings are complicated.

Disclaimer: This my personal opinion. I mean no offense to anyone else's opinion.

On the one hand, it offends my sensibilities as a novelist. I don't like the idea that my novels (or the novels of others) are used as a disposable hiding place. It gives me a feeling of 'tissue paper', or worse, 'toliet paper'; covered with crunge to provide temporary relief. This practice equates the novel to a feel-good drug that ultimately does nothing but harm to the user.

On the other hand, I DO like the idea that my novels (or the novels of others) could provide such relief to someone in need of it.  Life can be very hard and a disposable hiding place could make it tolerable. This practice equates the novel to cough syrup which dampens pain while the user works to overcome the source of the pain.

Originally, only the first paragraph described my feelings about escapism. When I was younger my preception of the world was much narrower and so my feelings on most subjects in real life were informed by what I saw in real life (other people like me) and online (varied).  When I thought of escapism I thought of people whose only problem was boredom and laziness. I figured they played games, read stories, etc in which they could insert themselves to relieve this boredom. I thought of Audience Surrogates who were fawned over by many beautiful girls (because the audience was too shy to talk to any in real life) or defeated demons (because they couldn't handle 'demons' in real life) and other wish fullfilment that shadowed what they wanted in real life.

This idea stayed with me when I decided to become a novelist and the thought of pandering to this sort of audience to make a living made me ill.  Then I found the following quote on Tvtropes. Believe it or not, it was on the trope page for In-universe escapism, that is, esscapism for the characters in the story.

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?
J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories" lecture, 1939

I didn't bother arguing with this point becaue I couldn't think of a valid point to argue. If I was imprisoned without hope of release or escape then I would certainly want to immerse myself in a more pleasant environment, even if it was imaginary. My problem with escapism comes from those that are not imprisoned or facing similarly harsh circumstances. The reason for my problem is summed up in this line from "The Oatmeal" website. I found it on the Tvtropes page for Escapist Character.

"By creating this "empty shell," the character becomes less of a person and more of something a female reader can put on and wear."
-The Oatmeal, 'How Twilight Works'

I don't want to write stuff like that and so Eric is not a pair of pants for the reader to wear. I think I offended a few people who started reading with this idea in mind. Instead they're introduced first to Tasio the Trickster and then to Eric; the former laughs at the latter. My goal for the book was for Eric to better himself and become a stronger person without leaning on magic or a flock of beautiful admirers. It was a self-imposed challenge at first, but if someone were to follow his journey and benefit in the same way then I would be thrilled.

If the world that the reader escapes to is one that empowers them when they leave, then I see nothing wrong with escapism. If the world that the reader escapes to is devoid of the tramua that otherwise plagues them, I see nothing wrong with escapism. If the world that the reader escapes to contains a pair of 'perfection pants' or some other wish fullfilment, then I do see something wrong with escapism.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Protagonist; Loser or Champion

I do a lot of reading about the craft of writing; books, other blogs, TvTropes, and I noticed a trend when they talked about The Protagonist. It was often about how the protagonist should be 'relatable' to the reader and how the reader should 'emphasize with' or 'identify with' the protagonist. I never understood this because I've never 'identified' with a protagonist. Have I rooted for one? Yes. Have I sympathized with their goals and/or plight? Sure. Identify with them? Never. I dislike this mood of thinking because it lends itself to a false dichotomy when it comes to protagonists; they can only be losers or champions.

This leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it cheapens the story. It is like saying the protagonist is not a character in their own right but a new skin for the reader. It frustrates me that there is a sense that an author can only create one of these kinds of protagonists: lower or higher than the reader for different grades of escapism. Under this paradigm the only third option is a featureless Everyman who is even more suitable as a 'new skin' for the reader because there are no characteristics to get in the way.

The Tvtropes page for Action Survivor states it better than I can so I'll quote it here:

"The Action Survivor is the opposite of the Action Hero; he's pretty normal in just about every way, so much so that if the Action Hero is ostensibly a fantasy idealized-self, the Action Survivor is more of a self insertion for the viewer, giving us someone easily related to because we're wimps. "

The page goes on to say that the Action Survivor will eventually become a full fledged Action Hero, thus creating the off-spring of the two; a loser that becomes a champion. While this is great if a reader uses the story as inspiration to becom a champion in real life, it has a Bread and Circuses vibe to me.

I did not write the protagonist of A Mage's Power to be reader-relatable. I wrote him as a self-imposed challenge. I'll write more about that later on because it's irrelevant to this post. The point is that I would rather my readers join Tasio in laughing at the protagonist then feel that Tasio is laughing at them personally. Now that I think about it, maybe that's why this one person quit reading after four or so pages.....

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

BLAM and the Author's Knowledge

"....a very bizarre scene in an otherwise normal story that veers off into the surreal or strange. Upon exiting that scene, the plot continues on like it never happened. "
-->TvTropes Defines the Term

This week's post is about the trope known as the "Big Lipped Alligator Moment" (BLAM). While normally I would say Tropes Are Tools this one is hard to use for a positive effect.  It is confusing, messes up the story's pacing, bogs down the plot, and otherwise lowers the story's quality. The one successful  occasion I can list is the manga "BoboboboBobobo" because it is a string of these and the appeal of the story is absurdist humor and even then it turns many people off.

These can result from a disconnect between the writer's knowledge (who knows everything about the story) and the reader's knowledge (who learns page by page). This is called the "Curse of Knowledge", a situation where an expert is so deep into their field that what they believe are the basics are more like '3.0' to a layman.  I took a class in college that compared comics to illuminated poetry and it we talked about how Jack Kirby would draw things that looked outlandish or out of place and I argued that he might have backstory for these things but doesn't have the space to talk about it in the story. "What the author knows about the story is a fraction of what he can tell about the story." Thus, what makes sense to the writer doesn't make sense to the reader.

This is why Beta Readers are important. To illustrate I will share an experience I had with A Mage's Power.

In the first chapter I had a several page scene that has been compared to "Alice in Wonderland" sandwiched between two scenes from a typical day in Eric's mundane life. Being the author, I knew all about Tasio's motives and how this fit into the rules governing the Verse but both positive and negative reviewers disliked it. I was loathed to cut it out because I viewed it as important. Then I received a review that went into detail about why it was bad and I removed it. In the entire book, this scene was referenced only once more. It's then that I realized it was dead weight. I wish I had somoene to point that out earlier and thus the need for a beta reader.

For a related topic, see The Proper Application Of Mind Screws

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Answering Review Request: Welcome to Harmony

James Trumpis asked me to read "Welcome to Harmony". It's about a werewolf boy with human parents moving to a new town where he meets other supernatural folk. I will examine plot, characters, and polish and then assign a grade.


There isn't much of a plot. While there is a single plot thread that connects the events together and forms a satisfying climax, it does not inform the meat of the book. Therefore, Slice-Of-Life is more appropriate to describe this story. One chapter is about werewolf training, another is about a school dance and a third is about hanging out with a ghost from the sixties. I like this for two reasons; 1.) It makes for a intriguing mundane fantastic setting and 2.) It's anti-epic.

The world building for Harmony is fascinating. Mr. Trumpis creates societies for the supernatural elements in his story. For instance, vampires are organized by elders and their territories ('regions') and they are policed by the Red League. I'd like to see more of that in future books. Second, there's backstory. For instance, Harmony has so many supernaturals because a family of mages founded it as a gathering point for their coven. If Mr. Trumpis ever writes a prequel for their immigration from the old world to Harmony, I'd read it. Both of these are under a masquerade but there never seems to be a fine line between the supernatural and the mundane; it's just one more culture among many. There's lots of other stuff mentioned or started in one of the chapters but it was never developed enough for me. Indeed, the only problem with the world building is that there was never enough of it. I wanted to see more.
The book has an 'anti-epic' air in that the story events are low-key. Vampires do not stalk the night and eat people (usually). Instead they obtain blood from willing donors like someone ordering a speciality drink. Werewolves fight monsters on the town's borders but consider this a routine chore to defend their territory. The climax is the most emotionally charged and high stakes affair in the story and it's SPOILERS!

There are also things that I do not like about this plot. They are obsession with reader identification and that the Slice of Life events are a flash in the pan.

Significant time is spent making Dillon 'relatable'. Aside from page number 1, the first twenty or so pages are about the mundane everyman aspects of Dillon. There is talk about how Dillon's parents don't understand him, and how they are obsessed wotj being a normal sociable etc family and Dillon indulging in things like World of Warcraft and dealing with boring classes and bullies etc.This veneer broken by accident which leads me to assume rule of drama.  On one hand this helps to establish the 'anti epic' tone stated above but all too often this is used in some lame plot device to get the reader to identify with the protagonist and pretend to be them. It's easy to get the wrong idea and become bored in the first two dozen pages or so.
The story events come and go quickly. Many of the chapters are short and so they do not feel fully formed. The Valentine Dance is one such example; it happens without mention or preamble, introduces a conflict, and then ends. One could argue this is more realistic but it still comes out of nowhere and feels like an Aborted Arc because it drifts into an unrelated plot point. Other examples are not like this; the ghost house for instance has a formal beginning middle and end complete with the introduction and resolution of conflict.

There is a curious split in characterization between the mundane characters and the supernatural characters. The former are bland and the latter are better rounded.

Because of the mundane opening and first person narration, Dillon feels like a bland everyman for a good chunk of the book. The first arc is about him as a featureless narrator with parent problems. Then the next several story events are his introduction to the various supernatural elements of Harmony which make him an Audience Surrogate. By the end of the book this is no longer the case and I came to like his personality but the start remains bland. Miles is little better; scrawny, socially awkward, spents a lot of time with video games and in short a stereotypical nerd. Like Dillon his personality is better developed and rounded by the end of the book but at first he feels like a complimentary everyman to Dillon.

The same is true with their parents; I can't tell Dillon's parents apart because they act and think in the same way. Miles' Dad sounds like a red neck and and his mother doesn't have any personality at all.

The Sullivan family, on the other hand, are great. The twins have their sibling bickering but are not defined by it. They have werewolf traits but they are not defined by those either. Their father has more personality then Dillon and Miles' dads put together (Reasonable Authority Figure, Good Dad, fan of the Rolling Stones). Their mom is similarly developed. I could say the same for Kessler (the vampire Elder) and his two vampire wards or for Gabby and her sorcerer family.

It makes sense to avoid wasting time on unimportant characters but because the mundanes are the first ones introduced it was a turn off for me and the split bothered me.


I didn't notice anything in the way of spelling errors but the rest is more complicated. First of all, this is a first person narration so the punctuation will be different; no one thinks in perfect grammar but personally, I don't like it.
Another issue is the teenager voice. Another reviewer stated that Mr.Trumpis speaks the 'tween' language and I am suspicious of any adult that says another adult can talk teenager. I left Dillon's age group a decade ago and even I think it's dated.  However, Shawn is proof that Mr.Trumpis is aware that teenage slang changes over time. Shawn was a teenager in the sixties and hasn't aged since then because he's a ghost so he speaks differently then Dillon and Dillon notices the difference.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Welcome to Harmony" a B.

Click here for the next review request: "The Amber Treasure"

Click here for the previous review request: "Leah and the Jackhammer"

Monday, August 12, 2013

Inspirational Monday: Reviews Part 2 (Positive)

The first Monday of every month is Inspirational Monday. Share something that inspires you. (I'm a week late this month due to certain issues, anyway!)

This month I'm going to talk about reviews, specifically good reviews.  In a previous post I talked about negative reviews and how important it is to embrace negative reviews. I'm talking about the 'I didn't like this book because of X, Y, and Z' reviews' and not the 'this book is (expletive)' reviews. Those latter reviews are worthless but the former are helpful for fine tuning of one's craft. Useful as they are they are not inspiring. The inspiring reviews are the good ones.

There is one review on my amazon page that tells me not to be discourage by negative reviews and others on this very blog ask when Looming Shadow (the sequel to A Mage's Power) is coming out.These raises my spirits every time I see them for an excited fanbase is what all authors want to see.

There are other reviews that compares my trickster figure, Tasio, to tricksters in other media such as Marvel Comics' Loki and Star Trek's Q. I'm fans of both of those characters so this is high praise indeed. It makes me want to write more.

Finally, there are those who like my setting. I had a number of goals when writing A Mage's Power and greatest among them was to create a Magical Modern world; a world that was similar to 21th century real life but with magic out in the open and integrated into the society. When someone tells me I succeeded, that is a tremendous high for me.

On a related note, I've revised my book reviewer policy.  If you wish for a critical and honest review of your book,  post a comment on the book reviewer page and provide your email. I hope I can provide you with the same inspiration other reviews have given me

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Proper Application of Mind Screws

On Tvtropes we call confusing symbolism a 'Mind Screw' because a reader can twist themselves into cerebral knots trying to figure it out. Today's post is about it's Tropes Are Tools aspect.. This level of confusion and symbolism can be great for discussion and comedy but it can also alien an audience or feel like a cop-out.

On one hand there is the discussion. A story can be made more engaging with puzzle pieces that do not quite link up and symbolish that suggests one thing or another to persuade the reader to read further to find more pieces. This is one reason mysteries why are so popular: 'find the next piece; what does it mean; who does the evidence point to now? Can we infer a motive?' A surreal mystery takes this one step further by placing reality itself into question. Now the story can take all sorts of turns and each scene could have several meanings and interpretations. TvTropes is not the only place where people gather to discuss 'what this represents; what is the symbolism of that; what the heck happened'? If an author can get people talking about their work, that's great. If they can get people to discuss their work, that's even better because it shows a greater degree of involvement in the work.

For instance, the anime FLCL is infamous for its absurdity that is also symbolic. TvTropes records the following axiom"If you wish to understand FLCL, watch the series from beginning to end, and
the desire will pass." Indeed, it may take a few viewings to notice that there is a plot at all. It is a favorite for both the Adult Swim programing block and its audience. Not only is it strange but it is also outrageously funny.

When used in a certain way symbols and surrealism can be used for comedy. My rule of thumb is 'if it is absurd than it is funny'. By cranking up the symbolism to super heavy levels, providing lampshading, and/or have some of it mean jack shit, you can have your audience wondering if you're on drugs. If they enjoy it, they may ask where they can get some. The goal is to make them laugh at the outright weirdness or chuckle at the more subtle implications. However, there is danger here.

The use of this tool can backfire on its author. Ever since The Death Of The Author, literary critics and fans alike have decided that the author is not the final authority on a work's meaning. There could be Unfortunate Implications or some funky alternative reading that has nothing to do with what the author was trying to communicate and someone could promote this against the author's wishes. While there's no such thing as bad publicity, do you want to be publicized as something you detest?

I have personal experience with this trope gone wrong as both a reader and a writer. 
As a reader, I took a class in college that analyzed Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and the TA gave a lecture exclusively about the alleged Freudian symbolism and how the main character hates sex.  The bulk of this takes place before the monster is created and the rest largely ignored.

As a writer I tried something like this trope in A Mage's Power. In the first chapter, I put my protagonist through a series of scenario inspired by the Classical Greek Elements: fire, water earth, air, and others.  This was supposed to be an examination of his character by Tasio to see if he could survive the coming adventure and grow into something greater than his current state, and at the same time, develop his character in a way that would be impossible in his mundane surroundings. Instead, a number of reviews (both good and bad) state that the first chapter was confusing. I got the impression that of all the chapters they liked it the least. This is the opposite of what a writer wants to see in reviews.

Tropes are Tools; I advise my fellow writers to use this one wisely.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Answering Review Request: Leah and the Jackhammer

Adam Ortyl asked me to read his novel "Leah and the Jackhammer". It's about a girl who goes into an abandoned mine in a mini mecha because a monster stole her semi-sapient stuffed bear. It was darker than I thought it would be but more on that later. I will examine plot, characters, polish and then assign a grade.
Overall I have good things to say about the plot.  It has character driven conflict, a well developed mystery, and a satisfying conclusion. However, I have issues with certain scenes that feel like padding and scenery description can be vague. 

First of all it develops organically; Leah goes into the mine with an objective, she accomplishes it, and in the process starts on a second one. Always she is driven by her own desires. "Prove I'm not a demon" is a compelling emotional background and is backed up by her actions. This keeps the plot on track and believable.
 While she travels into the mine's depths, she unravels the mystery of its abandonment. One hundred or so years ago, all the miners vanished without a trace and to this day no one knows what happened. Leah puts the pieces together as she pilots the Jack-hammer through lizard monsters (gnasher) and human monsters (Saggah). It unfolds bit by bit until the climax. 

The Reveal isn't shocking and it shouldn't be. In my opinion, I'd rather read something along the lines of "I KNEW IT!" than "Where'd that come from?"  I'm not a fan of Shocking Swerves for the sake of originality but that's for other posts. The bottom line is that this story does a good job of building up to the reveal instead of trying to keep the reader in the dark the whole time.  

The darkness I mentioned earlier comes from the Saggah's society. It is bloody and grimy and just-human-enough to be especially disturbing. (On Tvtropes we call this "Uncanny Valley"). Harold has to fight gladiator-style against monsters while the reader is constantly aware of the fact that the only thing between Leah and monsters is a thick sheet of glass.

Also, there's a theme of Corrupt The Cutie. A purple light attacks Leah early on and after that struggles with hatred that is 'not her own'.  She begins to enjoy the power and invulnerability the Jackhammer provides in the manner of a bully. As I read the book, I wondered if the previous miners were mutated by hatred and this purple light, and if Leah was going to turn into a Saggah.
I like the way the book's conflict is resolved.  For one, it was a surprise; a surprise separate from the main plot and yet still believable if one pays attention. For two, it neatly resolved a conflict that would have been difficult and messy to resolve otherwise. For three, with the same motion it points to the new conflict with a 'The Adventure Continues' vibe. It made me excited for a sequel.
However, I have more than good things to say about the plot. There is this one area that feels like padding because it does nothing for the plot. It's good for atmosphere and some character spotlighting but it drags on too long. There are things I'll mention under POLISH that bother me about it.
Also, the scenes with Harold don't do much for the plot either. One could cut them out and do little harm to the story. His scenes mostly serve to provide a glance at a society (indeed it's existence at all) that becomes important but even in that case it is background information.  

Leah is a girl ostracized by her community because of her glamour, I.E. magic. She has a running character arc of 'Am I a human girl or a demon' and it is her determination to prove that she is the former that makes her the hero of this story. Mr. Ortyl uses the Jackhammer's fights to illustrate the hatred/killing (demon) vs compassion/restraint (girl) struggle within her. However, she still a child so she makes mistakes and has problems immaturity and impulsiveness.
Sir Ursa makes a good sidekick.  On one hand, he is more alive than a mere animated stuffed toy and thus similar to a familiar like a witch would use. However, he's at all times a voice of reason and regularly advises Leah to show caution and restraint, thus making her more a girl than a demon, and yet, like he himself says, he is part of Leah and cannot believe anything about her that she, deep down, does not believe about herself.
Harold serves little purpose in the plot other than starting the mine conflict, but I liked how he developed. He's a little kid whose a bully because something bad happens when he tries to be nice and it's implied that his father is abusive. The fact that Leah calls him "Fat Butt" (a hated nickname) before he bullies her each time help prevent him from becoming a flat antagonist.  I don't know how the bad blood between him and Leah started but she contributes to its progression. The book points out a couple times that he would rather be nice than mean but nice rarely works out for him.
Finally, the villain is a good character.  Mr. Ortyl gives them a surprising amount of characterization before formally introducing them. They perform their role in the plot well; just the right mix of evil and sympathy to make the final confrontation mean something. The sense of mystery about them is part of the book's appeal so I won't say any more about them.
I didn't see any problems with grammar or spelling or word cruft. That's always a plus.  The problem I mentioned earlier in PLOT is that some scenes are hard to follow for a lack of description in the environment.  One of the battle scenes with the monster lizards sounded like a long string of the Jackhammer wadding through them to do things and so I didn't feel the urgency.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Leah and the Jackhammer" a B.

Click here for the next review request: "Welcome to Harmony"

Click here for the previous review request "Dark Space"