Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Gods and Demons in the Machine of the Story

This week I'm going to talk about a trope duality ; the Deus and Diabolus Ex Machina. These are Latin terms that mean "God in the Machine" and "Demon in the Machine" respectively. Both of them describe a situation where the author takes a desperate/hopeful situation for the heroes and introduces a wild element that twists it in the other direction. They are two sides of the same coin. Whether this device is used to achieve a happy ending or a sad ending is irrelevant; both of them are bad writing practices because they show the hand of the author and create unfulfilling endings.

We all know that the hand of the author writes the story but we don't want to see it. It is distracting and cheapens the characters because it reminds the reader that they are less than puppets. If the reader cannot become invested in the characters then they don't care about what happens to the characters (i.e. the plot). There are occasions where they can be used in service to the plot (played for laughs, a post-modernist premise, etc) but generally speaking, readers do not want to be reminded of the author when immersed in the author's world. 

From another prospective, if the answer to a hypothetical question regarding the story is 'otherwise it would be too short/the author's point wouldn't be made' etc then the story is not compelling or developed enough to answer the question on its own.  Again, this can work depending on the genre and premise but isn't it much more fun to imagine how the character will solve their problem/fail to solve their problem instead of how the author can favoritize/screw them over?

Both Machina  lead to unfulfilled endings. On the Deus hand, all the struggles of the heroes and all the evil committed by the villains come to naught because some outside force decided to resolve everything itself. The reader is left feeling a sense of pointlessness and thinking that the author shoehorned a happy ending. On the Diabolus hand, the conflict of the story also comes to naught for the same reason but to a darker effect. The reader is left feeling that that the author is an asshole (to reader and/or the characters) or believes tragic endings are more 'artistic' or some nonsense. Whether good or bad, an ending should be the culmination of everything the story has been leading up to in order to create a sense of climax and resolution.  If the ending you want is at odds with the story written thus far, then the story should be rewritten instead of adding a hasty ending. Your readers will call foul otherwise.

(For another post on the merits of happy and sad endings, see "Earn Your Happy Ending"

These kinds of ass pulls are snark bait on Tvtropes and other parts of the internet. This is why it's so important to keep these two tropes in mind when approaching the ending. Whether it is happy or sad or open-ended, your readers do not want to see it butchered by either machina.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Answering Review Request: Sister Margraret

 Rhonda Parrish asked to read her anthology "Aphanasian Stories". It contains three stories of varying length but I chose to read.  "Sister Margaret". It is the shortest of the three and the one whose premise caught my attention: " A vampire hunter and a half-incubus swordsman are hired by a priestess to kill the undead pimp that is extorting, torturing and murdering vulnerable girls."

 I will examine plot, characters, and polish, and then assign a grade.


The plot here is condensed; about 10 pages. I like that because it has a 'routine job' air to it which gives it a great degree of grounding. While I enjoy prolonged epics as much as the next fantasy buff, they have a grandeur and dramatic nature that puts them at odds with day-to-day life. This kind of small scale over-and-done-in-a-day fantasy story has a laconic appeal; a lot of action and emotion compressed in a small time period.

I would like to use this opportunity to bring up the Rule of Drama. It is summed up by TvTropes as "If the potential for conflict is visible, then it will never be passed over."  This is why heroes encounter setbacks in their adventures and why the villain always had the advantage; more conflict-->more drama-->(ideally) more exciting story.  That is not the case here.  Michael goes in reasonably prepared (sufficient spell power, a partner) and with a simple and flexible plan. He accomplishes the job quickly and leaves. Sure it would look anticlimactic on screen and wouldn't fill an episode but it makes him look like a professional and a badass one at that. If Rhonda writes any more stories staring this guy, I'll buy them.

Finally, I like the classic structure. The Hero receives The Call to Adventure from a Priestess to slay what is (mystic structure-wise) a dragon to protect the local community. He collects supernatural aid, goes into the dragon's lair, slays the dragon, and returns to the priestess. Putting an urban fantasy on top of this time honored structure is a big hit with me.


I like Michael as the protagonist. First Person Narration without a frame narrative usually sounds weird to me but this works because of Michael's personality. He's given to reminiscing and his narration sounds more like thinking to himself than true narration. Also, like I said above, he appears a professional because of his planing and execution. Combined with his deadpan wit, makes the book a joy to read. I would sum him up in "another day, another job, another vampire".

The story's namesake, Sister Margaret, is surprisingly well developed considering her little screen time. I could discuss her character at length but it would be spoiler.  Suffice to say that she is much more complex than a typical Damsel Errant.


No problems here. I don't see spelling errors, grammar issues, or word cruft.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Sister Margaret" an A+

Click here for the next review request Dynasty O'Shea

Click here for the previous review request: "Tears of Min Brock"

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Answering Review Request: "Tears of Min Brock"

J.E. Lowder asked me to read "The Tears of Min Brock". It is the first book in the "War of the Whispers" saga between The King of Claire and the Cauldron of Ebon.  I will examined plot, characters, polish and then assign a grade.

The plot follows the classic Hero's Journey. The hero (in this case, Elabea) receives the Call to Adventure and journeys into the Unknown World where they encounter Trials and Tribulations. The hero's goal is to arrive at their destination and then return with a boon for their people. In this case, Elabea wants to become a full fledged storyteller so she can inspire the people of her hometown and overturn Ebon's oppressive rule. This structure, plus the rich and enchanted setting Mr.Lowder has developed, give this story an epic and mystical air. It was a joy to follow her journey to Claire.

I also like Mr.Lowder's take on the Hero Of Another Story. Elabea is the main heroine but her journey is only 1/4 of the narrative. There are others working toward the overthrow of Ebon and facing their own trials and tribulations. To my surprise, the story doesn't feel cluttered because of this. Instead, they enrich the story. Perhaps this is because all four of them are different fronts in the War of the Whispers.

For a third point, I give Mr.Lowder props for making a christian fantasy without introducing a story breaker. It is nigh impossible to include a benevolent and omnipotent deity while maintaining dramatic tension but Lowder makes it work. The War of the Whispers is as much (or more) spiritual than it is physical. The journey enables Elabea and Galadin to mature and ward off the Cauldron's drone as they make their way to Claire, thus enabling them to become the heroes the world needs to overthrow Ebon. While Manno Vox could airlift Elabea to Claire or defeat all her enemies in place of Galadin, that would defeat the point of the journey; while Galadin defeats trained soldiers on his own without training because of The Only's presence, without personal courage and faith he would lose anyway.  It truly is a 'War of the Whispers', instead of a 'war of soldiers'.

However, I have two problems with this plot; an idiot ball in the backstory and a cliff hanger ending.
As for the backstory, Brairtok, the King of Ebon, decimated Claire's Army and killed its leader, Manno Vox, because of a deception that a military leader shouldn't have fallen for.  He pretended to have wagons of wounded troops and wanted to pass Manno Vox's lines, presumably to have them treated. Manno Vox allows him to pass without checking the wagons or demanding weapons or anything. Once in their midsts, the ebon soliders wipe out the Claire soldiers and Manno Vox is so shocked by this that Brairtok takes him out with a crossbow. On another occasion, the entire crop of story tellers, the best defense and weapon against Ebon, are given up for execution in exchange for Ebon to retreat from a location. Naturally, they don't retreat.

These two things are a problem because they undermine the premise. I think that if the people in the backstory weren't so stupid, then the bad guys wouldn't have taken over. It breaks my Willing Suspension of Disbelief that Claire with so many soliders and so many storytellers and generally outclassing Ebon in all ways, could have lost so completely that everyone thinks the place is myth one generation later.

As for the cliff hanger ending. I despise cliff hanger endings because I see them as cattle prods.
I don't ask for a neat package with a bow on it but I want a sense that this leg of the journey is over. I don't get that here. I feel like there's a chapter missing or an eplilogue that was never written.

It's because of these two problems that, as much as I like it, I can't give this book a perfect score.


The characters are complex are diverse. There are cynics, idealists, cynics who want to be idealists but can't manage it. There are warriors and jesters and badass animal companions and angels! It's a wide cast and Lowder does an admirable job developing them all. It's especially impressive because they don't form a single group and so they can't be developed simultaneously.

Newcomb's party has enough characterization and plot importance to be the main party and so are Elebea and Galadin's fathers back in their hometown and Il-Lilliad's quest for allies.
For a third point, the ebonites are not monolithically evil. They're still evil but in different ways. There are Punch Clock Villains working in the military, Brairtok has this 'glory and power seeker' thing, the Cauldron's Council have this 'evil priesthood' thing and the Cauldron itself is like some primordial First Evil.

There is no word cruft, which is a 'delight'. Also no problems in terms of spelling or grammar. On another note, there are patches in the story that are written in all CAPS. I have no idea what this means so I ignore it.  Overall, there's good flow in this storyline.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Tears of Min Brock" a B+

Click here for the next review request: "Sister Margaret"

Click here for the previous review request: "The Apprentice"

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Interview with Andy Straka

Today I have an interview to share with you all. Andy Straka is a veteran crime fiction writer; his seventh novel (Dragonflies: The Shadow of Drones) was published last month. He's come to Trickster Eric Novels to tell us about his book and his writing process.
1. Why Crime Fiction? 

Of all the novels I read as an English major in college the book that most
resonated with me was Raymond Chandler’s
The  Big Sleep.  I suppose there might be any number of reasons for this resonance. Latent psychotic tendencies, perhaps?

But in all seriousness, I write crime fiction because I am passionate about it, and
I am passionate about it because crime fiction deals with issues of good vs
evil, justice and redemption. These subjects all seem vital and existential to
me and drive my stories.

2. Are there any authors who inspire you?

I’ve  been inspired by Raymond Chandler, Robert B Parker, Donald Westlake, J.R.R.
Tolkein, Michael Chabon, Dave Barry, Sharyn McCrumb, Brian Jaques, William
Gibson, Dennis Lehane, SJ Rozan, Dashiell Hammett, Andrew Klavan, Harlan Coben,
Jeffery Deaver, Sarah Strohmeyer, Steve Hamilton, Rick Riordan, George
Pelecanos, Robert Crais, Joyce Carol Oates, Megan Abbott, Kinky Friedman, C.J.
Box...The list goes on and on....

3. Did you always want to write fiction or did you have some other passion growing

Growing up I mostly enjoyed sports, eventually focusing on basketball, devoting an
inordinate number of hours to the jump shot and crossover dribble. Reading and
writing were at best a secondary passion until I entered college, where I
continued to play basketball and also determined that, not being able to do much
else, I would major in English literature. I went on to make the
earth-shattering discovery that I, too, could try my hand at a little prose. But
it would be another fifteen in the business world before I would finally get
serious about writing.

I guess you can say I’m a slow learner.  

4. You have a long resume and writers often say one should one writer what one
knows. Does your experience at your other jobs inform your plots or characters?

Life and work experience influences everyone. For example, after more than a dozen years as a medical sales rep, my wife of many years, a practicing physician,
told me one day that I’d “learned enough about medicine to be dangerous.”

Writers are supposed to be dangerous, I think, dreaming up new things and cooking up stories to see how they all fit together. I’ve said on many occasions that I  don’t think writing what you know is as important as writing what you love. Writing requires passion first and knowledge second. You don’t need to have worked at a particular profession or have experienced a particular thing yourself in order to write about it or create believable characters. (If you have indeed worked at in a field you want to write about that may be all well and good, up to a point, in trying to sell what you write, but in my experience it can also prove a hindrance to creating good fiction.)

Regardless, the one essential requirement is that the writer must either already have or be able to develop a passionate interest in his or her subject matter. It’s passion that allows a writer to empathize with their characters, to “get inside their heads” to accurately portray their thoughts and emotions.

5.  Your most recent book, Dragonflies:  Shadow of Drones, involves tiny surveillance drones sneaking into private places. Is there social commentary here or is it simply the framework for a thrilling story?

Number  one, I believe in the power of storytelling.


I  became fascinated a few years back with drone technology and its potential
impact on our world, and I soon came to believe it could form a compelling, and
in many ways new, framework for storytelling. This especially applies to crime
and detective fiction.

What happens, for example, when investigators (perhaps in the very near future) have
micro drones at their disposal? This was the concept that fascinated me and out
of that grew the characters of Raina Sanchez and Tye Palmer.

At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the potential societal and cultural
implications. For example, what if, instead of “Big Brother,” what we’re now
seeing begin to develop is the beginning of “Big Brothers?” What if everyone has
drones available to them and the entire concept of privacy begins to be lost?
(Any celebrity can tell us how that feels.)

We’ve become a culture that worships and aspires to celebrity. What if drones, just
like the Internet and Youtube, etc. become just one more tool, one more pathway
to potential instant celebrity as the world becomes flooded with more and more
images and more and more information from places and settings heretofore unseen?
When it comes to right vs wrong, truth vs lies, will drones bring us any closer
to redemption or in some perverse irony, push us farther away?

I don’t have any hard answers to these questions, but I know I want to continue to
try to tell stories within such a framework.

6. Dragonflies: Shadow of Drones is your seventh book. Do believe the writing process is easier
after so much experience?

It does get a little easier each time, at least as far as organizing the plot and
visualizing the entire book once I’m deeply into the story. But I’m always
striving to improve and I know I still have a long way to go. These days I’m
actually frustrated by an inability to tell all of the stories I want to tell. I
have far  more ideas than I have time to write. It’s making me more curious
about human cloning.....kidding :)

7. If you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would you

Read  all the time, write every chance you get, but make sure you get out there and
experience some real life, too. Take up falconry, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, go to a
NASCAR race, or visit the Tower of London. Somewhere within the wealth of your
accumulated experience you’ll find a host of stories. 


Learn more about Mr.Straka and his work at

"Dragonfiles: the Shadow of Drones" is available for sale at:


Barnes and Nobles

Monday, June 3, 2013

Inspirational Monday! Earn Your Happy Ending

The first Monday of every month is Inspirational Monday. Share something that inspires you. This month's post is about the trope "Earn Your Happy Ending".
The trope describes a happy end (maybe a straight up Happily Ever After) that comes after a great deal of struggle and hardship and despair. I like these kinds of endings because they are indeed 'earned'. Also, they are a potent weapons against the tragedy freaks shouting True Art Is Angsty. *
These types of endings are inspiring because they say that 'No, you don't have to be miserable because of your circumstances' and  'yes, you CAN earn your happy ending'.  Only a cynic would say that tragedies or bittersweet is realistic. On the contrary, Earn Your Happy Ending is truer to real life because real people want to be happy. They wish for it and work at it. They don't strive for bittersweet unless it's ice cream.

Earn Your Happy Ending can contain all the deep introspection and all the thought provoking conflict and all the examination of the human condition and everything else tragedy is praised for but still end happily.
Are happy endings made from a cookie cutter? Yes, and so are tragedies. Depending on the writer's skill, a tragedy can be as bland and formualic as the 'light hearted comedies' they despise and said comedy can inspire more discussion and human reflection then a tragedy. 

Someone that Earns Their Happy Ending will have an end that is unique to them and this provides wide open creative freedom. Downer Endings can only come down in so many ways; the hero dies, he doesn't get the girl, his mission/goal fails, etc. There is nothing original or thought provoking about any of this. With Earn Your Happy Ending, you can determine the nature of the ending and avoid a 'cookie cutter' tragedy.  

Struggle, yes; conflict, of course; Despair and hardship, absolutely! These are the things that drive plots forward but one or all of these together does not preclude a happy ending. By enduring this struggle, facing this conflict,  and overcoming the despair and hardship, their struggle has meaning and it is this meaning that is the soul of the drama. Without a goal and the belief that this goal is, despite all odds, attainable, then the conflict is nothing but "a lengthy description of unremittingly unpleasant things happening to someone." (as said on Darkness Induced Audience Apathy)

All of the above take place in the writing process: struggling to get the plot on paper, conflicts with time and energy, despair from horrid drafts or negative feedback, but never let this distract you from your goal; the finished, published product. The journey may be long and hard but the book will be finished, it will be fantastic, and readers will flock to it.  With enough patience and effort, any writer can Earn Their Happy Ending!
(For help avoiding un-earned endings of all sorts read  "Gods and Demons in the Machine of the Story")

*I have nothing against tragedy itself but I can't stand forced tragedy. If an author relies on plot holes, contrived coincidences, or idiot balls to make an ending tragic or bitter sweet then their character are derailed and their plot is cheapened.