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.

Dont's.

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(s) 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 a 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) 'Protagoist 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.

Dos.

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. 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.

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.

PLOT

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.


CHARACTERS

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.

POLISH

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).