A Writer’s Staycation

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Last Friday, I turned in my manuscript to some beta readers. This week, I am trying to take a vacation from writing. Emphasis on trying. Turns out my attempt at a short vacation is only confirming what I’ve suspected all my life — that writing isn’t something I DO, it’s who I AM. My vacation at home is teaching me a few more things about the cliche phrase, “You know you’re a writer when …” So, here we go with some vacation-specific thoughts on how to recognize the writer as a species, compared to writing as a profession.

You Know You’re a Writer When …

1. Though on vacation, you don’t bother turning off your alarm, which is set for 6:00 A.M. on normal weekdays, because you know you will wake up with ideas that need to be quickly transferred into Scrivener notes before you forget them … which is usually right after rolling out of bed. (That and you realize it’s pointless to try to sleep in when you have a cat that sits on you at 5:50 A.M., staring at you like a vulture, waiting for you to wake and feed him.)

2. You go through your morning routine of planning your day, as if you weren’t on vacation, but end up blocking off 2 or more hours anyway for “looking over” your next writing project. That “looking over” turns into plotting the draft of your next book. Then every day thereafter is blocked for working on specific draft elements. And you’re excited about that because the ideas are flowing since you’re not under pressure to have to do it.

3. Your first vacation day is miserable because you planned chores you otherwise don’t normally have time to do … like that half-finished sweater you’ve been knitting since last September. But after you “look over” your spontaneous draft work in the morning, you lose track of time refining it, and by evening you’re scowling at your planner as you highlight things you didn’t accomplish because you spent your “free time” writing.

4. Your second day of vacation is better because you decide that if writing is what you enjoy, and you’re making progress, you should give yourself permission to write! But when you force yourself to shut down Scrivener, you kind of have to talk yourself into playing Witcher 3 to get your mind off of the morning’s plotting. You’re on vacation for Gods’ sakes! Spend half the day playing or something!

5. Your third day of vacation you realize you suck at vacationing. But you’re okay with that because the goal is have fun and relax to counter burnout. If the morning was spent having fun writing, and you can spend the afternoon relaxing with a game … reading a book outside … or daydreaming while napping in the sun and thinking about what you might tackle in tomorrow morning’s draft work. Because your come to realize your idea of vacation is not about taking a break from doing something you love. It’s about giving yourself permission to take a break from the things you don’t love … like mowing the lawn or doing the dishes.

6. Your fourth day of vacation you finally feel like you’re on vacation because you have figured out that more time doing what you love and less time doing what you don’t love results in happiness. And you’re kind of relieved you chose a “staycation” because travel would involve the hassles of arranging pet care, planning an itinerary, and wasting precious money. Imagination is free, and you can take your time enjoying it if you live like every day is a holiday or summer break.

7. You resent the fact that, before the weekend is up, you will probably have to interrupt your writing retreat to face the dandelions taking over the yard. You already resent having to load the dishwasher last night because no one has invented a dishwasher that does that part of the job, too. Oh, and things like laundry and the budget? Their constant presence is a reminder that they will be waiting for you with double the normal workload when your “vacation” ends.

8. You are spending one of your last days of vacation writing about your attempts to take a break from writing because you finished today’s draft work early and now have six plots almost completely mapped out and ready for transcribing onto note cards for the storyboard. But you’re not quite ready to take the afternoon off for Witcher 3 yet. … Perhaps some ice cream and a nap in the sun will help.

Dragonling Update: Time for Betas!

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Image Source: Clipart Kid.

This morning I finished my fourth revision of The Dragonling.

(Pardon me whilst I blow horns and throw confetti.) 🙂

It’s actually more like the fifth revision because I got about 80% through the fourth revision and realized I had a huge plot hole that needed mending. It was big. And it involved going back to the beginning and finding ALL of the places where I was working up to a particular event because I had to tweak them and change the order of a few things. If that doesn’t sour your day as a writer, nothing will. But I digress.

After two years in production, this book is now ready for beta readers. Took a whole year longer than my other books because I had to go back and re-read them and take notes on them to make sure I didn’t miss bringing any plot threads together for this one. In mentioning this to a few friends and family, I got the return question, “What’s a beta reader?” So, I’ll offer a brief answer here.

Just like it sounds, a beta reader is someone who reviews the script before it’s published. My experience with alpha readers is that they offer feedback on sections of the work before the entire script is finished. Thus, betas are usually the second set of people to see it and from beginning to end, rather than in pieces. The beta reader is not an editor or proof-reader, but they can call out mistakes and make suggestions like those professions all the same. Beta readers usually aren’t hired professionals, but they can be.

Basically a beta reader is someone who matches the type of audience you would be selling the book to, so they can give critical feedback from a reader perspective. Beta readers need to be able to express WHY they did or did not like something and note any confusion or major reactions to let the writer know the work’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than offering a generalized, “I loved it!” or “It sucked!” Anyone a writer would trust to give honest critical feedback can be a beta reader.

In the case of The Dragonling, however, my choices are little more limited. The monkey wrench in finding beta readers for this book is that it’s the fifth in a series. It’s not a fifth volume in a collection, either. It’s a fifth book in an arc. That means the reader really needs to have read the first four books before attempting to tackle this one, or they’re going to miss a lot of references from them and possibly risk not understanding the main plot. Finding beta readers for stand-alone books is much easier.

The other problem with finding beta readers is that authors want to find someone they can depend on. If betas are too busy, don’t enjoy reading, or don’t enjoy your genre, you may never see feedback from them. And you will have wasted a month or more waiting for it. That’s a month or more that you could have been seeking another beta reader, or at least sent it off to the editor for the final edits. It’s not necessary to have beta readers, but most writers find their feedback helpful, if not invaluable.

So, if anyone ever asks you to do a beta reading, only take the job if you are genuinely interested in the author’s work, have the time to finish reading the script in a timely fashion, and can offer commentary along the way. If you offer to beta for a writer, but then something comes up and you can’t do it, let them know you need to cancel ASAP.

Wish me luck in finding any previous beta readers who would be willing to test drive this baby! And then I am ready for a hard-earned vacation while I await the returns! (Actually, knowing me … I will shorten vacation to focus on further developing book 6. I don’t know how to not write.)
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Character Interview: Trizryn, the Thief

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Image Source: My Skyrim game. 🙂 Trizryn and Zhenta are on their way to hunt down a missing person who stole from the Thief Guild. In my novel, Trizryn is a character with illusion magic, so he crafts his appearances according to his environment. He spent most of his life living as a light elf in the fae court, but then went underground into Nisala’s thief guild to intentionally undermine his step-father’s regime.

Last week I shared a character interview and demonstrated how to use such things to find the voice of a character. This week, I thought it might be fun to compare and contrast the voice aspect of character creation. (In other words, no, I have not finished my book of the month for a review, or finished my beta draft, so let me distract you with shop talk.) 🙂

Shei, the bard and best friend of one of my book’s protagonists did last week’s interview. He is a “foil” character. That means he was designed to be the opposite of the main character in order to highlight his personality. Don’t confuse foil characters with antagonists. Antagonists antagonize protagonists by going against them in some way. They don’t have to be bad guys, but they present a challenge the main character must overcome to complete the plot. Foil characters, however, are usually friends with the main character, and they are there for support. They’re just intentionally different because by contrasting the main character’s personality, they help the reader refine the main character’s voice … and their own. (Secondary characters should be treated as primary characters for the sake of character development if not for plot.) So, as an entertainer, Shei’s dialog and actions come with a bit of comic relief and charm. It’s not fake or manipulative, unless he makes it clear that is his intent, so his personality also has to come across as sincere and loyal. But more often than not, his mood is light because he is the kind of person who attempts to support others when they are down or stressed.

This week, I’m going to offer the same interview to Trizryn, one of two main protagonists. With four published books on these characters, I should feel comfortable discussing Trizryn’s nature in articles that mention him, but I guess I still feel protective of spoilers. I will try to find a balance here. Trizryn is enigmatic by design. His “truths” unfold little by little over the entire course of the series. He was designed to be dynamic, which means he starts off rather rough, but then changes as a result of what happens to him over the course of the plots. Trizryn is also an anti-hero with more burdens on his plate than his foil, Shei. He used to have a playful sense of humour, according to his sister, K’tía. But that was stripped away from him when he was reconditioned in the Derra Eirlyn dungeon. Over the course of the story, he “awakens” to reclaim his freedom, his ability to trust, his appreciation of life, and more. Shei is a very important person in his life because he is the one friend he could trust. They are brothers-in-arms and the butt of each others’ jokes. So these characters must have distinctly different voices, yet those voices must support each other in spite of contrast. So, here is Trizryn’s interview to compare to Shei’s. It’s all about finding the character’s voice. 🙂

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Freedom to be yourself. Friends who accept you. Spicy noodles.
2.What is your greatest fear?
Not knowing who to trust because everyone has an agenda. … Necromancers creep me out, too. Especially now that I’m dead.
3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Where to begin? I tend to make bad decisions. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of. But I’m trying to put things right now where I can. … Let’s see, I’m dead. That tends to not go over well in conversations. And my current death was tainted by my previous death, which complicates things. Oh, and I’m not even real to begin with. At least not this time around. That’s even more fun to try to explain.
4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Betrayal. You never really get over it, especially if it’s abusive in nature.
5. Which living person do you most admire?
Aija. She’s stuck in a world she knows nothing about, in dangerous situations that test her courage and strength like nothing else before, and she may have lost … everything … when I pulled her through that gate. But somehow she’s been able to forgive, accept what’s happened, and keep going without becoming tainted. She’s a quick learner, able to adapt. Once she sets her mind on something she’s tenacious about it. She has a strong sense of fairness. And some days her insight makes her seem more like an old soul than I am.

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Trizryn is an expert swordsman who can see in the dark. And, if necessary, he can use his internal sorcery to conjure his own weapons. Because in truth, he is a dark elf. And he’s tired of pretending to be something he’s not just to appease everyone else. So, for Trizryn, the Elf Gate series is about rebellion and awakening to his true self. His voice, therefore, is often introspective. As a thief and agent, his main plot lines involve a lot of political intrigue, a lot of information bartering and some under-the-table type activities where he has to be able to act without a squeaky-clean conscience. His morality is gray, but he does lean toward good. In D&D terms he would be chaotic neutral or chaotic good.

6. What is your greatest extravagance?
I don’t think of myself as an extravagant person. I grew up with wealth; but it was empty, so I never attached to it the way some people do. Which is good because now I’m dirt poor.
7. What is your current state of mind?
Honestly? Nervous. Plans to get Aija home screwed up, as usual. But if this next attempt works, I might end up having to meet her parents.
8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Justice. It too easily turns into revenge. When we’re eager to punish people for doing something wrong, that doesn’t usually solve the problem. It’s just an outlet to justify our anger. Justice and problem solving are two different things. I’ve had to learn that the hard way … and I still struggle with it. But in my opinion if you want revenge, just call it revenge. Don’t hide behind justice.
9. On what occasion do you lie?
When I have to protect secrets that could endanger myself or others, or make matters worse than they already are. Most of my life has been one lie after another, so I’m tired of illusions and lies now. Tired of secrets.
10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
Well, the fact that I resemble a gargoyle more than an elf now has damaged the pride a bit. But as long as Aija doesn’t seem to mind, I’d rather be faded with fangs than dressed in illusions.

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Without illusions, Trizryn’s natural skin used to be raven-black. Now, afflicted with vampirism, it is charcoal gray. As a Gray One, he is even less welcome among surface fae because it is assumed he is diseased and feral. Trizryn, however, is a cursed original. And the deeper he goes down that path to find out why he is this way, the more complicated his story becomes. Much of his plot is heavy, but self-discovery is a theme most readers can relate to. His voice must reflect his frustration at each obstacle.

11. Which living person do you most despise?
In the past, I would have automatically said Erys, my step-father. He’s an abusive tyrant. But now it’s a toss-up between Erys and Ilisram. Because they’re both two-faced, cold-hearted sons-of-bitches that deserve to be tied to posts and flayed for the crows to feast on for everything they’ve done.
12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
Respectability. Or rather, recognizing that respect is earned by deeds, not titles or possessions. A man who wears a crown has a responsibility to be a good leader and look out for the people of his kingdom, or he does not deserve that crown. A tyrant deserves to have his crown taken from him, by force if necessary, in order to spare the people who would otherwise be mistreated by him.
13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Nice legs and short skirts. (Punches Shei and pushes him away from the keyboard. The bard quips something about payback being a bitch. Glares at Shei and turns his back to guard the keyboard.) Trustworthiness.
14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
My sister used to complain I cursed too much. Aija agrees. Even my translator amulet has started boycotting me, so I guess they have valid arguments. But I’m trying to be less … colourful … these days.
15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Aija. (smiles) Shei once said Aija and me could argue about the colour of an orange until pigs flew, but she’s my compass when I lose myself. She makes me want to be a better me … for my own sake, as well as hers. She’s my anchor … my hope.
16. When and where were you happiest?
Just being able to “be” with Aija … remembering what it was like to have fun with Shei and other friends … without someone trying to kill us, preferably.
17. Which talent would you most like to have?
I’m not a talent seeker. I did used to have free time for learning music, though. I’d like to have more of that.
18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Not being dead or needing regular blood intake would be nice. But not if going through a third birth means giving up what I have now.
19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Getting Reznetha’ir’s refugees out of Serensa to Absin’navad before the Derra Eirlyn raided their camp. I just wish I had been there to evacuate them from Absin’navad, as well.
20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
You mean like — I don’t know — a vampire? (snort)

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I chose to make Trizryn a vampire because I have always been intrigued by vampiric characters. They are the eternal outsiders. They represent the struggle between impulse and impulse control. They represent the monsters we all have within ourselves. And they are rather godlike in the supernatural powers they are given, so exploring what makes them weak is a challenge.

21. Where would you most like to live?
Some place peaceful. Wherever I can be with Aija. Doesn’t matter where. No politics, no dragons, no more living on the run.
22. What is your most treasured possession?
Again, I’m not really one to attach to material things. They’re too much of a burden. Although, I do have a favourite sword that’s been enchanted with fortification spells. It can take off anything’s head in one swing … even for someone as lightweight as Aija.
23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
My time in the dungeon for reconditioning was a low point. I was isolated, tested, tortured. My body and my thoughts were invaded on a regular basis. They tried to recondition my behavior with mind control and pain. And even after I was free, they kept me under constant surveillance … until I became a drug addict just trying to put some space between me and my summoner. But then I found out she wasn’t who I thought she was, and that was almost as miserable as the dungeon. Being everyone else’s damned puppet is no different from being their slave.
24. What is your favorite occupation?
There’s occupations beyond the Derra Eirlyn? I never thought about it. I’d probably end up teaching martial arts or becoming a locksmith. I can always break the locks or break down the doors if I can’t pick them. … What? Oh, right. Shei says that might be overkill.
25. What is your most marked characteristic?
My appearance. People have always judged me based on how I look. And considering how I look, that’s probably never going to change.
26. What do you most value in your friends?
Having lived around the fae court and a den of thieves (which aren’t much different), most of the time I can tell when someone hangs around because they want something from me versus wanting to be with me. I prefer people who value relationships without asking what’s in it for them.
27. Who are your favorite writers?
Don’t really have any. I don’t have time for reading these days. Shei’s poetry is good for a laugh, though.
28. Who is your hero of fiction?
I don’t know about fiction, but Reznetha’ir is probably my real life hero. He’s always willing to help someone in need, without judgment. He’ll put his life on the line to stand by his word. He’s honest and a good problem solver. He’s made of good stuff. He’s the kind of person I sometimes wish I could be.
29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
This is a trick question right? Technically, I am a historical figure.
30. Who are your heroes in real life?
Already said Reznetha’ir. His mother, Knight Abehendal … I can admire her sacrifice for standing up for what she believed in. Róbynn because he was more of a mentor or father to me than Erys ever was. I guess I’d add Shei, too. He puts up with a lot from me, but has never let me down. … Well, maybe once. … Okay, twice. … Okay, he gets in trouble a lot, but so do I. Never mind. Let’s just say we’ve got each other’s backs when shit goes down.

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I prefer vampire characters who are more than their identities as vampires, and Trizryn has multiple identities. There is a person beneath those titles and roles. So, the challenge in writing for him is to consider how all of his experiences would affect one another … from dark elf prince to thief to vampire and beyond. But for this type of character, for all the fun I have unraveling him, there should always continue to be a little bit of mystery. 🙂

31. What are your favorite names?
I chose the name Trizryn for my minkuiliké because it’s a traditional name that comes from two archaic High Thályn words meaning tried trust or proven trust. I thought it would make me, as a dark elf, more acceptable at the light elf court, but who was I kidding. Now, it’s the identity that reminds I am not Kethrei.
32. What is it that you most dislike?
This is going to sound odd coming from someone like me, but I hate killing people. There’s far too much blood on my hands, and I’m not even an assassin. If I could retire my sword tomorrow, I would.
33. What is your greatest regret?
Leaving Absin’navad, K’tía, Róbynn, and everyone else in Ilisram’s hands without knowing what kind of monster he was. I should have seen through his lies sooner. My other big regret is Ilansa. I might not have been able to stop Ilisram, but I should have been able to stop myself.
34. How would you like to die?
In my sleep, but I doubt I’ll be so lucky. I’m more likely to die while staked or wrapped in bloodletting chains, followed by decapitation or fire, now that driving an ordinary blade through my heart isn’t enough to execute me. Then again … a blade with anti-magic runes could also make for an interesting end.
35. What is your motto?
No more secrets. No more hiding. I am what I am, and one way or another, I’m taking back my life.

Book Review: Waiting Game

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Book: Waiting Game
Series: Chronicles of Covent
Author: J.L. Ficks and J.E. Dugue
Genres: fantasy, action, adventure

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Doljinaar. Kingdom of might and stone. One name is whispered upon the lips of every man, woman or child old enough to know fear. An assassin lives among them. A foreigner born of a far off dark land and yet lies as close as their shadows. An assassin that goes by the name of Shade…

It has been many long years since Shade left the black forests of his people, the Dark Elves, where he was trained among the ranks of the Unseen. He has grown rich and powerful in the world of men, feeding off mankind’s compulsion for spilling its own blood. His name has become like a cold wind slipping in through the night, but even he tires of his own legend and yearns for a challenge…

And so when Shade was offered a job that could mean his own downfall, he did not hesitate to accept. He would strike at the crimelord of the Kurn underground. In one bold stroke he would make himself an enemy of his own dark underworld. Has he finally found a worthy enemy or will this contract be his last?”

Notes of Interest:

I bought this book because I was on a quest for books about dark elves and this popped up in my search. Dark elves originated in Norse mythology and traveled down into Germanic and English lore, but most people today are more familiar with their modern cousins from fantasy role-playing games and world-setting novels. Dungeons and Dragons, in particular, has inspired a large number of other dark elf fantasy races, cultures, settings, etc. As a fan of dark elves, they fall into a category of interest where I’m always curious to see how similar or how different writers and artists can design them.

What could have made it better for me:

This book needs better editing. Too many spelling and grammar issues distracted me from the story. That’s the easy part to critique. After that, I have to say this is one of those books where I had a hard time deciding whether it was poorly written or just not my cup of tea.

I’ve explained in previous blog reviews how I usually try to keep my own biases in mind when reviewing something, because poor editing, poor structure, poor characters, etc. qualifies as bad writing. But stories about cowboys, for example, usually don’t appeal to me because I’ve never been a fan of westerns. I believe readers need to be aware of their own biases when reviewing because there is nothing an author can do to fix bias. Likewise, just because I don’t like westerns doesn’t mean someone else can’t. What bores me might excite someone else. So, I usually “give back” a star rating if I didn’t enjoy something, but think it bias brought it down for whatever reason.

Having said that, there were times when environment details felt off-topic. I remember one scene where the main character is arriving in a city and walking through a crowd, but it felt like more attention was being paid to a particular conversation between passers-by than the assassin, so my attention drifted. I found myself forgetting about the main character and wondering where the conversation was leading. In the end I think it was just meant to demonstrate how people quake at the sight of a dark elf, but that is demonstrated frequently in this book, which brought up some realism issues for me.

Assassins don’t normally like to be visible or draw attention to themselves … for a number of reasons, if for nothing but their prey could run. Yet everywhere this assassin went, people knew his name or knew his reputation or knew enough to be very afraid of dark elves, even though he was far from his homeland. If he is that well-known and that terrifying, so as to stand out in a crowd everywhere he goes, how does he do his job? The hype surrounding this character made him less credible in my eyes. And the fact that he considered himself to be just as terrifying as everyone else perceives him made him feel one-dimensional. Shade is supposed to be a bad-ass assassin, but it seems that is all that he is. No other dimensions of personality are shown, except for one scene where he was afraid while trying to fight his way through some undead. His dialog was a bit over the top — the “I will be your worst nightmare” kind of protagonist. But this is where my personal bias might have influenced my assessment. I just don’t like characters like that. I don’t think readers have to like the characters they’re reading about; the story belongs to the character, regardless of whether readers like him or not. Stories should never be about making character likable. However, I tend to have a hard time relating to protagonists who truly believe they are invincible, especially when they are static. The villain and henchmen had even less attention to deeper development — a smarmy crime lord and his muscle-for-brains thugs.

Lastly, I felt the plot was rather one-dimensional, too. It has good structure in terms of sticking to an outline and going from point A to point B to accomplish the mission. But that’s all there is, except for a few flashbacks and world building explanations. So, this book is about the main character going from Place A, where he has a fight, to Place B, where he has a fight, to Place C, where he has a fight, and so on, until he reaches the big boss battle and they trade insults and then they have the final fight. But even then, the final battle is very underplayed after all that led up to it about the assassin wanting a challenge. His final strategy was skipped over and whipped out as a surprise, rather than followed, even though the reader follows him every step of the journey up to that point.

This fantasy novel felt more like an action movie with heavily choreographed fight scenes. Or I could see this story being done as a comic because of its straightforward objective and acrobatics. But I expect more depth from a novel. To be fair, this might be my love of complexity coming through. There’s nothing wrong with simple, straightforward stories and over-the-top martial arts, as long as they fit the overall theme of the story. But, personally, I have to have more than a novel about fights. Fights are exciting elements to include in adventure stories, but if that’s all the story is, to me, it reads more like a quest journal from a role-playing game. And for fight scenes in novels, the story-telling should match the pace of the battle — short, explosive, and to-the-point, like the action itself. If a fight takes an entire chapter to describe it loses my interest … and perhaps credibility.

What I liked about it:

I mentioned above that the plot was not flawed. It doesn’t have any gaping holes that didn’t make sense, or anything like that. Which means it was easy to follow and understand — a quick read.

My favourite part was probably the flashbacks because they went deeper than the main plot and had more “humanity” in them. Even in fantasy and sci-fi, it’s the “humanity” of the characters (even alien creatures) that readers latch on to in attempts to relate. In the flashbacks we see some of the training this assassin went through, and it’s a chance to see how that harshness contributed to his cold, hard personality. (And I realize assassins generally are stone-cold loners, but interesting characters are more than that, regardless of their professions … sometimes even because of their professions.) I also liked the flashbacks because I liked the glimpse into dark elf society. And I enjoyed the descriptions and world-building aspects regarding the dark forests where they originate. Since that is one of the interests that led me to the book in the first place. Those parts of the book held my interest more than others. The flashbacks also gave context for the main character more so than the rest of the story. This story doesn’t have any secondary characters as foils to the main character. His journey is mostly solitary from beginning to end. But in the flashbacks, you see his relations to his teacher, his fellow classmates, his traditions, etc. This is where there is more substance beyond a string of fights on the road to his goal.

The comedic inserts were sometimes funny, but sometimes over the top. The stupidity of the henchmen felt out of place if the king of thieves was to be taken seriously. I liked the faun, however. He felt more original and appropriate to the overall atmosphere than the two thugs that kept failing at their duties.

The book has nice illustrations. Most novels don’t offer such visuals, so that’s a bit of a treat.

Recommendation:

I recommend this book for a quick read if you really enjoy action. The setting makes it fantasy. The plot makes it adventure. But the bulk of the text is about action. How much of a novel should be devoted to action is perhaps a personal preference.

There were times when this novel read more like a comic or role-play game journal, so I had a hard time deciding whether I was supposed to take it seriously or not, off and on. I think my expectations were set on something more like a Forgotten Realms novel, and that is not what the authors were trying to accomplish here. The back matter of the novel explains the authors’ marketing strategy.

“Most authors tell their best stories first. Readers are left increasingly disappointed as prequels and spinoff tales never again reach that full epic scale and depth found in the original trilogy or saga.” So they designed this book as something small that leads up to something epic. They refer to The Hobbit laying the foundation for Lord of the Rings by example, asking readers to imagine a book for Gandalf, a book for Strider, and so on.

The problem with this kind of strategy is that the first book in a series always bears the burden of having to hook enough interest to carry the rest of the series. The Hobbit was an excellent novel with depth, well-defined characters, and a stand-alone plot. It didn’t need Lord of the Rings to be successful. Had The Hobbit been lower quality, people might never have been interested in reading what came after it. Even in modern “arc” series that do depend on the books that follow, the first book must be a “best” effort, or no one will be interested in what follows.

So I feel like the “save the best for last” marketing strategy worked against this book. If I had started with the “best” book in the series, I might have been interested enough to follow additional individual character stories on the side. That’s how fandoms work. As it is, there is not enough here to interest me in seeing more of this character in a bigger world or more complex plot.

I’m going to rate this one “not my cup of tea” with a note that it definitely needs better editing, but give back one star in case there are other readers out there who think they might enjoy it.

Book Review: Eat, Pray, Love

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Book: Eat, Pray, Love
Series:
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Genres: non-fiction, memoirs

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love touched the world and changed countless lives, inspiring and empowering millions of readers to search for their own best selves. Now, this beloved and iconic book returns in a beautiful 10th anniversary edition, complete with an updated introduction from the author, to launch a whole new generation of fans.

In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything a modern American woman was supposed to want—husband, country home, successful career—but instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed by panic and confusion. This wise and rapturous book is the story of how she left behind all these outward marks of success, and set out to explore three different aspects of her nature, against the backdrop of three different cultures: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence.”

Notes of Interest:

This book was an international sensation that I didn’t pay much attention to until I found myself in a position where I could relate to Gilbert’s interview comments about being on the bathroom floor in sobs realizing her life was falling apart. Then, the more that I heard about the book, the more I realized I needed to hear a “sister” perspective on choking on life to the point where you don’t recognize who you are anymore; you only know you’ve got to break the chains that bind to find peace of mind and heal before life can ever be okay again. I don’t know what kind of inspiration I was expecting from this book, other than just taking comfort in listening to some other caterpillar’s attempt to find her butterfly wings. I was not disappointed.

What could have made it better for me:

No constructive criticism for this book. It was well-written and combed over enough times in editing that nothing distracted me. It was never boring. It never felt preachy. It didn’t even really advocate world travel as a means of solving all your problems … which I appreciate because many of us aren’t in a position to throw a week’s worth of clothes in a bag and jet off to paradise leaving our troubles behind, although it might be easy to interpret it that way on the surface. Gilbert took her troubles with her, for one thing. It was a “year off” from the responsibilities and routines of the past, but her new “work” was wrought with challenges, tears, and truths of the kind you only encounter when you force yourself to look in the mirror and know that life must change. Personal growth is probably one of the hardest battles any human being will ever face.

What I liked about it:

My favourite thing about this book is its voice. The manner in which the author records her thoughts is comic, honest, and relative. It made for a fun read that often had me reflecting on my own experiences or beliefs or feelings … which is why I bought the book, so mission accomplished. “Sister talk” in lieu of having a sister during times of crisis was exactly how these narratives came across.

Another thing I appreciated about this book was the degree of honesty offered about the experiences. If paradise turned out to be dirty, scary, greasy, or disappointing, she didn’t skirt around that and try to make it sound like something it wasn’t. Her openness about her personal challenges normalizes how all of us feel about our failures and how hard it is to let go, or keep trying, or practice self-discipline, or even just see yourself through the lens of truth.

The first part of the book, seeking pleasure, is set in Italy and serves as a reminder that life should be joyful, but joy is something you have to actively pursue … all the time. It’s not a destination, or a final achievement. And you’re more likely to find joy when you are genuine in acknowledging the little things you appreciate … like pasta. The second part of the book, seeking spirituality, is set in India, and is open enough so as not to push “religion” on anyone, but does go into detail regarding some of the principles behind yogic meditation and traditions. Mostly she seeks parallels in understanding what it means to be connected in spirit … to yourself, to your community, to the world, and to whatever higher power you believe in, including just being the best You that you can be. And that’s not the same thing as perfectionism. The third part of the book, seeking balance, is set in Bali, and was not so much lessons in finding equilibrium among life’s various demands and ideals, but finding the peace of mind to face and overcome chaos: disrupted plans, difficult truths, personal fears, etc. There is a balance that comes with knowing how to get back on your feet when the unexpected strikes, and when you can fall down and get back up, that is when you can truly believe in yourself again.

Here are some quotes that “spoke” to me.

“Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience.”

“The Bhagavad Gita — that ancient Indian Yogic text — says that it is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection. So now I have started living my own life. Imperfect and clumsy as it may look, it is resembling me now, thoroughly.”

“… when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt — this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.”

“If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control. Drop everything else but that. Because if you can’t learn to master your thinking, you’re in deep trouble forever.”

“The best we can do then, in response to our incomprehensible and dangerous world is to practice holding equilibrium internally — no matter what insanity is transpiring out there.”

“I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God. I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s the history of mankind’s search for holiness. If humanity never evolved in its exploration of the divine, a lot of us would still be worshiping golden Egyptian statues of cats. And this evolution of religious thinking does involve a fair bit of cherry-picking. You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.”

(Personal note here, as a third-culture kid, this describes my entire life. Since I have never felt a sense of belonging to one particular place or people, I have no place that feels like “home” to me … I have always cherry-picked from the places and people familiar to me and kept what works for me while dismissing what doesn’t. I just never considered this to be a means of evolving. So, I found this quote particularly interesting.)

“Yet what keeps me from dissolving right now into a complete fairy-tale shimmer is this solid truth, a truth which has veritably built my bones over the last few years — I was not rescued by a prince; I was the administrator of my own rescue.”

Recommendation:

If you, too, are “seeking” this book has a variety of tales, laughs, insights, and wisdoms for consideration. I enjoyed it because it was the right book at the right time, well-written, and entertaining without being “self-helpy” or lecturing. It felt more like a friendly conversation from someone who has been there, done that, and survived it.

Epic Fantasy Word Count

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Ängsälvor – Nils Blommér 1850

So, last night I finished the fourth revision of The Dragonling. (*insert fanfare and confetti here*) Well, not “finished” so much as “made it to the end”. Well, okay, so I have few subplots to insert here and there, but the main plot is now flowing from beginning to end with only minor tweaks ahead for the beta. (Whew!)  So, I finished proofing the last scene and was pretty stoked, right? The next “finishing” step was to click on the entire file for my total word count.

239,856 …

And my elation and relief at being so close to done came crashing down, just like that. Why? Because the “acceptable” count for fantasy and sci-fi novels hovers around 120K to 150K. When I published the previous volume in the series, The Atheling, I was panicked the entire time about having too high of a word count. It was consistently over 200K in the drafts. By publication, I got it down to 192K. But this was a mixed blessing because on one hand, I was proud of learning how to better trim the fat. On the other hand, it made me sad that even in the most “forgiving” genre when it comes to word count, it was still too high. (This is where I guess I’m grateful for self-publishing because I honestly don’t know whether a traditional publisher would tell me to chop out characters, delete sub-plots, and remove unnecessary world building to make the word count fit into their little box.) So, I wanted to keep this next book at or below the word count of the last one. Yet each new volume in the series gets bigger. Right now I’m hoping I can hack it down to 200K, but any hope of it getting smaller than that, especially since I do still have some subplot tweaking to do, is fading.

I started looking up advice on how to drastically trim word count. Most of what I found was the usual advice. Trim the unnecessary words. Trim anything that doesn’t progress the plot. Trim away the plot itself until it meets the rules. Every article always points out that there are exceptions, but those exceptionally lengthy books are exceptional. Every article also points out that fantasy and sci-fi are more lenient because you have to build an entirely different world for your reader. But there is still no way I can cut 239K words down to 120K … or even 170K. It’s just not going to happen without losing huge chunks of story. The problem is that my plot is very complex and interwoven, so it’s not as simple as drawing a line down the middle to cut the book in half and make two volumes.

So, I was beginning to hate my overly cumbersome imagination once again, when I found this: “Word Counts of Epic Novels” (http://fantasy-faction.com/forum/fantasy-book-discussion/word-counts-of-epic-fantasy-novels/ ). I’ve seen word counts on classic novels or “great” novels in many places, and they do make me feel a little better to compare my 200K books to something like War and Peace, clocking in at over 500K!  But those are mostly old books written well before today’s modern publishing standards. And, unlike those authors, I have to work with modern rules. Everyone likes to throw out J.K. Rowling as an example of an author who broke the rules and was successful, but 1) her first Harry Potter book did follow the rules, and 2) the first book made the publishers rich, so they didn’t mind her breaking the rules thereafter. And 3) the books are exceptional quality. This word count list is different because it points to the difference between exceptions, fantasy, and epic fantasy.

I used to mistake epic fantasy for high fantasy, but they are not the same. High fantasy has a classic feel to it: knights in shining armor, slaying dragons, elven immortality and magic, etc. Epic fantasy is huge and sprawling by design and it requires several books to cover the entire length of the tale. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is both high fantasy and epic fantasy. I avoided calling my books “epic” because I wasn’t sure if they qualified as “high”; there are steampunk elements, horror elements, comedy elements, etc. And I hardly compare to the mastery of Tolkien. But now I understand that “epic” means this particular kind of fantasy is even bigger than normal fantasy. Epic fantasy is for people who expect long, detailed stories they can immerse completely in over a period of time. These are not stories designed to be finished on a train commute or while waiting for office appointments, so that the reader can quickly move on to the next book. These are stories the reader wants and expects to invest time in. Which is why this particular list of epic novel word counts is different from all the others I’ve come across. My word count is more on the level of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, of which the highest individual novel is 354K, or George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, with the highest individual novel word count at 404K. Yes, these books will be a burden for some readers who prefer quick and easy reads. But this proves there are readers out there, like myself, who enjoy being invested in epic-length stories. Suddenly, my 239K seems reasonable … even small.

I’m not looking for excuses to avoid editing word count. I guess I’m just tired of feeling like the publishing industry caters too much to people who want to read something that is 50K or less. It’s true that thin books are less expensive and more marketable. I understand that. But there is a place in the market for the giants, too. And that place is epic fantasy. Fans of epic fantasy and writers of epic fantasy know that this genre is loved because it sprawls across time and many protagonists into complex subplots. So, we’re doing these kinds of stories a great injustice if we try to squeeze them down to “normal” standards. The books still have to be professional quality and interesting. There’s no saving 200K of flotsam and jetsam. But if the story has been tightly edited, and the plot has been intricately crafted, and the characters have been well-developed, and the world building has been imaginative … why can’t we take our time and enjoy it over a longer span of time? What’s the rush?

Fans and writers of epic fantasy, take heart. There is a market for us. And we shouldn’t let the standards of other genres intimidate us into hacking up grand stories into pulp fiction.

 

Book Review: Boneshaker

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Book: Boneshaker
Series: Clockwork Century, Book 1
Author: Cherie Priest
Genres: fantasy, steampunk, adventure, horror, historic

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born.
But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.
Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.
His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.”

Notes of Interest:

I’d heard about and had been wanting to read this book for some time. So, now that I’ve finally had a chance to dig into it, all I can say is, “Wow. I’m glad I did.” 🙂 This is going to be one of those reviews where the book delivered exactly what I expected it to deliver, so finding enough words to critique it is going to be a challenge.
By the way, I’ll insert a reminder that a critique is not automatically a negative review; it’s a review. Period. Too many people associate the word “critique” with negative connotations, but when I like something I often find myself speechless. So, that why critiques are actually harder for me to write about books that I thoroughly enjoyed. I have no notes to work from because the immersion was that good and the mistakes were that few. So, I end up floundering for what to say when analyzing it. That’s a good thing, trust me.

What could have made it better for me:

To be honest, this is one of those books that I’m very pleased to say I don’t think could be improved upon. I think I spotted one technical error in the entire work, and it wasn’t major enough to jot it down, and I was too into the story to care. That was the only break in immersion for me, and I don’t even remember what it was now.

What I liked about it:

Everything about this book was a win for me. I love the genre combinations. I love the fact that the leading lady in the adventure was a middle-aged woman with a teenage son. I applauded the diversity in the cast of characters. I enjoyed the elements of adventure embodied with the sky pirates and territorial ground factions amid anarchy. I anticipated the zombie-meets-wild-west elements of horror. The steampunk atmosphere and use of all five senses scattered throughout this book to make it such a tangible read. And the real historical references blended so shamelessly with alternate historical references, particularly where the civil war was concerned, was intriguing and imaginative. This mother-and-son adventure is unique, exciting, and memorable for both of those reasons.
I am prone to admitting my biases in these reviews so that the author and other readers are able to pinpoint where they may disagree with my opinions simply because of differences in taste, rather than bad writing or story-telling. So, I have one and only one bias to admit here. I live in WA state, and I have been to historic Seattle and the Underground beneath Pioneer Square many times. I would say it’s impossible for a writer to come away from such things and not be inspired to incorporate them in a story somehow.
Any time that Zeke and Briar ran through the underground tunnels, I was reliving those places. When the skylights in the sidewalks were mentioned, I think I squeed aloud because those are one of my favourite things about that area. In fact, Seattle’s Underground and those sidewalk-skylights inspired the undercity setting in my own novel series. So, I absolutely loved being able to fully visualize the history and environment from personal experience. This is probably the first time I’ve ever been local enough to an author’s choice of setting for the names, locations, and certain circumstances to feel warm and familiar. Even if the city wasn’t ever really lost to a toxic gas and rotter invasion back in the 1800’s, we all know something haunts those inverted waffle-blocks, right? 😉 I think this book will always be a personal favourite for those reasons in addition to it just being a great read.

Recommendation:

If you like the genres mentioned above, I think you would like this book. It’s a straightforward adventure in an unusual setting with memorable texture, yet the characters have enough depth and drive that they are what define the plot. This book is about a young boy’s growing pains and quest to find out the truth about his father, and his mother’s determination to do whatever it takes to save her son’s life … even if it means putting herself in physical danger and telling him the dark secrets she’s kept from him all his life. The story-telling is interesting. The quality of the writing is nearly flawless. I thoroughly enjoyed it.