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"

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Fake Difficulty Plot

As a writer myself, seeing other writers holding back the heroes in any manner is one of my pet peeves. It feels like padding and a waste of my time. If the heroes are weaker or stupider than the villains or if they refrain from taking some action that could resolve the plot it makes my blood boil because I do not tolerate such things in my own writing. I do my best to think of how my heroes could best resolve a given conflict, and, if such a solution is within the bounds of their characterization, to implement such a solution regards of what it does to my plot. This is because the plot will be stronger for it.

"Holding Back the Phlebotnium" as Tvtropers call it, feels awkward and weak. It is comparable to a story having termites to allow the villain to march to victory only for the heroes to suddenly stop them at the climax. If examined too closely, the whole thing collapses.  The climax of such a story is liable to fall flat because it feels like the author took their foot off the hose instead of writing a truly engaging and challenging villain.

I've often said that plots should be driven by characters instead of characters driven by their plots because this is one of the pitfalls that is avoided.

On Tvtropes this is one of the things they snark at. It is prime snark bait for sarcastic tropers to point out this sudden weakness or lack of intelligence and state how convenient it is for the villain to fulfill their Evil Plan. The same goes for overly powerful heroes but this one comes up more often because if the heroes are over powered from the start then the story will be very short.

Indeed, I recognize how important it is to make the villain a credible threat and that if they were foiled quickly than the story would end in the first act. However, is it too much to ask for a villain that advances to the final act to match wits and powers with equally capable heroes?  I want to see a tennis match; advantage tossing back and forth with each side accumulating victories and losses. The only time I want to see idiots battling idiots is in a comedy; in which case I don't care who wins because I'll be more interested in the slap-stick and jokes.

I had such a problem myself with the first draft for the third (yet unnamed) book in the Journey to Chaos series. I was holding back both sides (hero and villain alike) in order to make the scene shorter and neater and make some stupid Honor Before Reason style point. Looking back I thought it was ridiculous and rewrote it. This is a crucial point in the chess game; one of those 'turning points/ decisive battles' you hear about in history and so it stood to reason that neither side would hold anything back. Thus, I had my hero use the full extent of his magical power and my villain unleash all their resources. Not only was this more fun to write but it makes more sense in terms of characterization and comes to a sharp, decisive, point. The former meandered around and fell flat.

Instead of dumbing down the heroes, make the villain smart enough to outwit them at their best. Instead of forcing the villain to trip at the finish line, make their defeat the culmination of a story's worth of heroic efforts. Instead of being snark bait, you'll be praise bait.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Appearance with a Purpose

Appearance can go a long way to provide characterization. This is because there are visual cues that are associated with certain behaviors or personalities. For instance there's Smart People Wear Glasses, Pink Means Feminine, and Red And Black And Evil All Over. At a glance, these traits provide instant characterization (this person is smart/feminine/evil etc). All this is great for a visual medium like television or a video game but what is a writer supposed to do?

Everything must be described to the reader and no reader wants to read three paragraphs about a character's outfit. This leads to things like Wall of Text and Costume Porn.  Thus a writer must be selective with the words they use to give them the greatest effect. This is known The Law of Conservation of Detail; Every detail given is important.

We've all heard of Chekhov's Gun right? It fits with the importance of meaning in someone's appearance. Do not put a parasol into someone's hands on a regular basis unless you want to emphasis a lady-like demeanor, a peculiar choice of weapon, both, or something else. Do not give someone a mantle unless you want to give the impression of a commanding presence,trying to look like they have a commanding presence, some local fashion, all of the above or none of the above. The important thing is that the thing (whatever it is) serves a purpose.

Sometimes this purpose is about appealing to something the audience is thought to like. Tvtropes has many (in my opinion too many) tropes describing such appearance-for-appeal traits. They are organized under 'rules' where the appearance trait (among other things) is included in the work of fiction because the given trait has the given appeal. These rules include The Rule of Cool, Rule of Glamorous, Rule of Sexy, etc. However, even here where the trait's primary purpose is appealing to the audience these tropes can improve characterization by allowing these traits to inform the character's personality or contrasting with their personality.

In my Looming Shadow revision I've used these tropes to highlight contrasts between characters or bring a certain personality trait into focus. I believe it will help the reader immerse themselves in the story. To read more about Painting the full picture, click here

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Answering Review Request: "Dark Space"

Jasper Scott asked me to review his novel 'Dark Space'. A pilot named Ethan is so deep in debt to a crime boss that he and his co-pilot face death if they don't do him a 'favor'; sabotage a space fleet that serves as the only form of government in an otherwise lawless district of space. I will examine plot, characters and polish and then assign a grade.


I like the plot. It has a quick yet steady progression so that it feels neither thin nor thick. It's like pizza crust and just as tasty.

The escalation of the plot is exciting; what begins as evading a dangerous debtor moves to higher and higher stages as more of Brondi's Evil Plan unfolds. Everything is character driven. I love seeing how Ethan attempted to uphold his end of the bargain with Brondi yet the same time screw him over while Brondi planned for this behavior.

Another point in the book's favor is that there are no idiot balls. Ethan does the best he can with what he has and Brondi does likewise; considering he's one of the big whigs of Dark Space this means he has a lot to use.

There's a great deal of world building. For instance there's the backstory of the Sythian war that informs the plot but has no direct relation to it; fascinating, and better still, it doesn't bog the plot down. There's just enough detail about the ships and the nature of the society to paint a picture without a five page spread about anti-matter or some other facet of society.

The ending hits that sweet spot between 'resolving conflict' and 'leaving conflict open' that gives a reader closure for the book but at the same time makes them excited about the next book. All too often I see a writer attempt something like this only for the attempt to fall flat; it looks vain, goading, or lazy, like there's a chapter missing. That's not the case here. Instead there's a sense of 'phase 1 complete-press x for phase 2' sort of thing.


Despite how good the plot is, it is the characters that truly sell it.
Ethan is a terrific example of how to make an anti-hero without resorting to Dark and Edgy characterization. It's easy to tell that he is a good man but the Crapsack World nature of Dark Space means he has to resort to dishonest means and extreme tactics to stay alive and make ends meet. Similarly, Alara is terrific as his foil being younger and overall more cheerful than him but is still her own character. There was a moment when I thought she was going to become a Deuteragonist instead of a sidekick.

Alec Brondi is delightfully despicable. On one hand I admire his cunning, his Faux Evilly Affable demeanor, his avoidance of traditional villain pitfalls like over-confidence or taking things too personally, and the grandiose scale of his Evil Plan. On the other hand, he's such a loathsome creep that I'm looking forward to Ethan blowing his brains out.

The crop of lesser and supporting characters are also good. As with the world building, there is a balance between making them more then walking names and info dump that slows down the plot.

The polish is pretty good overall. I didn't see much in the way of grammar/spelling problems;certainly not enough to affect the grade. More importantly, there is no word cruft. This provides that crisp, polished, feel that makes the sentence-by-sentence nuts and bolts of the story appear so professional.

I have nothing constructive to say. Since I became a volunteer book reviewer, this is the second full length novel that I have awarded the following score to.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Dark Space" an A+

Click here for the next review request: "Leah and the Jackhammer"
Click here for the previous request: "Dynasty O'Shea"

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Answering Review Request: "Dynasty O'Shea"

Clarissa Cartharn asked me to read her novel "Dynasty O'Shea". It's about the O'Shea family reclaiming their kingdom from a usurper. I will examine plot, characters, and polish, and then assign a grade.


A lot goes into world building. The leprechaun newspaper (both comedic, plot relevant and simply interesting) the Cider festival, (a rare truce zone) and the legends of the Tsez Xian which sound like something out of a creation myth. When an author goes to these lengths to develop their world it is always a big plus in my book.

I also give kudos to Miss. Cartharn for keeping the parents relevant in the main plot; indeed Jack (the dad) is the hero of this story. All too often with this premise the parents are killed off or pushed to the background so their child can take the spotlight. To me that smacked of escapism and the plot suffered for it but that's not a problem here. All of them stay relevant so one can say that the O'Shea family as a whole is The Protagonist.

However, the plot itself feels empty. Part of the reason for this that the O'Shea family participates in three main events towards reclaiming their throne; go to the Tsez Xian village, recruit them, then final battle. The rest of the story is filled with minor and inconsequential plot threads.
1. Forycdes running back and forth with messages while wondering about Jack O'Shea. This guy is a minor character (his role in the plot is tantamont to a Spear Carrier) and he has screen time comparable with the O'Shea family and his own love triangle.
2. The witches. They appear out of nowhere for their own scene entirely separate of the O'Shea family before meeting with them. Their 'shared apprentice plot' is entirely separate from the main 'reclaim the kingdom' plot because the witches don't care about politics or thrones and Draviador is too afarid of wtiches to attack them. One could remove it and the rest of the story (save one event in the climax) would be unaffected.
3. Blackburn has a third plot arc based on revenge for Jack humiliating him in the first act. He never follows up on this.
4. One of the O'Shea kids helps a squirrel family rescue a bunny from coyotes. It has nothing to do with the main plot and does nothing to progress anything.

There's so much back and forth I don't feel the rise of tension or plot build up. The climax falls flat for this reason (among others). My inner editor wanted to cut them all out.

A third reason is  a clumsy case of Holding Back the Phlebotinum. The O'Shea family intiailly reach the world by using a magic pendant. As soon as they arrive they hide the pendant on the justification that they can't let the villain find it. Then they forget it about except for an offhand mention late in the story. If they used this they could skip all the traveling and have an easier time breaking into the villain's fortress. The story would be much shorter, and in my opinion, better because all the traveling was uneventful and thus boring.
Other than this one case there are no idiot balls. If someone does something ill-advised it springs from their character instead of the needs of the plot. For instance, When David jumps into battle against professional adult soldiers it's because he has been training in martial arts for years and wants his family to stop doubting his skills.

Finally, I appreciate the how Miss. Cartharn ended the story. The conflict is resolved and there is plentiful of poetential for future stories. In fact, a number of sequel hooks are dropped in the epilogue.


The characters are all right. Most of them have distinct personalities and good development but others do not and they include main characters. There are three reasons for this. 1.( The fragmented nature of the plot above; there is not enough time spent with all the characters to develop them sufficiently. 2.)  Inappropriate allocation of screen time. As mentioned above, a spear carrier has the same amount of screen time as the main characters and even gets his own subplots in discovery and love triangle. 3.) The characters with good development don't feel developed until near the end because all the other plot lines pushed these secenes far apart.

The villains get two paragraphs to themselves. First we have the Big Bad, Dravidor. He is a flat and almost non-existant character because he does very little. Other usurping, which is related second hand, I don't know why this guy is so evil. The only evil deed he does is a I Have You Now My Pretty to Rachel O'Shea in the climax and even this is so rushed and trite that I feel it was shoehorned.

The villains as a hole have this problem. Blackburn is introduced early and has a vandetta against the hero but he does nothing. Despite looking for Jack he never finds him nor causes any reoccuring trouble. Then there's Major Scuddorf who is
introduced late, does absolutely nothing, and is killed off uncremoniously off screen. I wonder, why bother including him?

On the plus side,  The O'Shea family grew on me by the end. Aly especially because she gained a unique talent (bear friend) and a foil in the third act that distinguishes her from her brothers. I'd like to see a story where they each have more screen time.

I also like the witches. Miss. Cartharn does a much better job of quickly developing the three witches and their shared apprentice than other characters. Their personalities are distinct, their subplot is more developed, and their interactions are more fun. If she were to write a sequel based on them I would love that.


Over all this is pretty good. There's rarely an error with spelling or grammar and the only word cruft is understandable, i.e, in the teenager dialogue.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Dynasty O'Shea" a C+

Click here for the next review request: "Dark Space"
Click here for the previous review request. "Sister Margaret"