Friday, 28 February 2014

Of love and ransom notes

Before February slips away completely, I want to point you towards this hugely funny post by Joshilyn Jackson on Valentines Day disasters. I swear that woman writes the funniest blog on the internet.

She asked people to chime in with their own funny Valentines Day stories in the comments, which sent me on a little trip down memory lane, way waaay back, before there were any ducklings, before the Carnivore and I were even married.

To show you just how long ago this was, there were no emails. Not even – gasp! – any mobile phones. We were engaged, and the Carnivore was working in a country town a long way away. To communicate we had to write actual paper letters, and at night, after he’d finished work, he’d drive into the one tiny main street and stand in the public telephone box and chat to me.

So while he was there Valentines Day rolled around, and me being the romantic type (well, I was back then!) and missing him terribly, I bought the cutest little white bear. Between its cuddly paws it held a tiny red box covered with love hearts. I filled the box with Smarties (one of his favourites) and sent the bear.

A few days later, I got this in the mail:

 You can see why I love him. Ridiculous man. He was so proud of himself.

Don’t worry, no cute white bears were harmed in the making of this extortion attempt. He took the bear to a local craft shop and asked the lady behind the counter to make him a matching ear. When he explained why, she was so amused she added blood stains and didn’t even charge him.

Certainly a memorable Valentines Day, if a trifle … unorthodox. My husband – the last of the true romantics.

What about you? Do you have any good Valentines Day stories to share?

Thursday, 27 February 2014

C is for Chosen: Review of Chosen by Benedict Jacka

Today it’s time for the letter C in my book review series “A Fantasy Alphabet”, and the book I’ve chosen is, well, Chosen, by Benedict Jacka.

Chosen is the fourth in the Alex Verus series, about a mage living in modern London trying – and usually failing – to keep out of trouble. People always seem to be trying to kill Alex, often through no fault of his own, though there was that apprenticeship with a Dark mage that earned him a few enemies …

Now, in the fourth book, we learn much more about that long-ago apprenticeship, as the motive for the current attempts on his life are directly tied to his actions as an apprentice, despite his years of (relatively) clean living since. Alex has always been a bit of a flawed hero, and now we find out exactly how flawed.

Alex is a great character – something of an everyman, if you can overlook the fact that most regular guys can’t see the future. He’s done some bad things in his past, and now he tries to do good to balance it out, but he’s not perfect, and his good intentions are often hampered by a lack of trust from other magic users. This is the first book where he even has more than one friend, having always been a bit of an outcast.

And he’s no superman. He can’t throw fire or do anything flashy. His one power is the ability to see possible futures, which often allows for clever solutions to problems. And he needs every ounce of cleverness, as once the attacks start they keep on coming with barely a chance to catch his breath. The plot unreels at almost thriller-pace as it careers towards a surprise ending that promises a world of pain for Alex in the next novel.

The world of Chosen takes the “urban” part of “urban fantasy” seriously. London is so richly described it feels almost like another character. I love the sense of place in these novels. It feels like travelling without ever leaving home.

If you’re a fan of Ben Aaronovitch or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, you’ll love the Alex Verus novels. Chosen is a fast-paced addition to what is becoming a favourite series.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

If three wells make a river, what do three wases make?

Ah, revision – guaranteed to bring a writer’s ego crashing back to earth.

Dean Wesley Smith, a multi-published author, advises never to revise. He writes his first draft, checks for typos and publishes.

Maybe when I’ve written as many books as he has I’ll be able to do the same, but for now I think my readers (and my reputation as a writer) will be better served by removing some of the first-draft suckitude from my manuscript. And even the second-draft suckitude.

I was still finding gems on the second revision pass. The prize for most uses of one word in the same short sentence goes to:

“The worst part was, he was probably right, but I was out of options.”

That’s three occurrences of the word “was” in a total fourteen words, or 21%. Not bad, eh?

“Was” is a particular problem child of mine. I’m aware that when I’m writing first draft, creating the story, I tend to overuse basic sentence structures like “there was a something-or-other”. That’s fine. First draft isn’t meant to be about crafting beautiful prose. First draft is when I’m discovering the story, dealing with plot and characters and “big picture” issues, and I don’t want to break the creative flow by considering syntax too much.

But it means I end up with a lot of sentences like: “There was a lot of junk in the drawer.” That’s a grammatically correct sentence that conveys the necessary information, but it’s passive and dull. Too many of those suck the life out of your story. A better sentence would be something like: “The drawer bulged with junk”, which brings a picture to life in the reader’s mind.

Which is where revision comes in!

In revision “he was much taller than me” becomes “he towered over me”. “I should know what this little piece of rock was” becomes “I should recognise this little piece of rock”.

Cool, isn’t it? Swap out “was” for a more active verb, and the writing automatically improves.

After I’d finished two major revision passes through the novel I went hunting specific words. “Was” occurred 1467 times. Eek! Obviously a lot of those had to stay, but the tired old “there was a something” ones came out. I managed to kill off almost 300 of those suckers.

“Just” is another one I can’t seem to resist. There were 240 of those. That shows up a lot! The Find function commented jauntily. Rude piece of software. Bet it had a conniption when it counted the “wases”.

Actually I was expecting a lot more “justs”, though I did nuke what felt like a thousand of them on the second revision, so that might explain it.

The manuscript is just about ready (see? those pesky “justs” sneak in everywhere) to show to my beta readers. I’m pleased but frankly astonished to have made it this far – a real live almost-finished book! One small step for man, one giant leap for procrastinators.

Fingers crossed they don’t want me to rewrite the whole thing. Or add any wases.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

B is for Blackbirds: Review of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Today, somewhat belatedly, we arrive at the letter B in my review series “A Fantasy Alphabet”, with Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.

First up, don’t you love that cover? A clever and intriguing piece of artwork, with the title popping out as the only touch of colour. Very eye-catching.

It’s a clever premise too, and one that had me itching to read this book: whenever Miriam Black touches another person’s skin she experiences a vision of their death. She knows the cause, the date and time down to the minute, but not the place. She’s also learned, from bitter experience, that she can’t do anything to save anyone.

Naturally this has left her rather antisocial, to put it mildly. She’s damaged and embittered, living the life of a drifter, never getting close to anyone. She battles her misery with alcohol and a biting dark humour that brings some relief to the relentless gloom of the first-person narrative.

One night she hitches a ride with a truck driver called Louis, who seems like a genuine nice guy. Only problem is, when she touches his hand and sees his imminent gruesome murder, he’s calling her name as he dies. And then she meets other people, and begins to see how she might be involved, and realises Louis’ death scene might be her own too, if she doesn’t somehow save him.

This is a real and gritty adventure through the seamier side of life. If swearing in books bothers you, you won’t like Miriam. Of course, you may not like Miriam much anyway – she’s prickly and difficult to like, even though you can see her prickliness is a shield, and you certainly feel for the terrible situation she’s in.

Her great redeeming feature is her sense of humour, which often made me laugh. Chapter 10, for instance, is titled “The sun can go fuck itself”. Chapter 11 is “The Sunshine CafĂ© can go fuck itself equally”. Though the humour is dark, without it I don’t know whether I could have finished the book. The pace is relentless, and seems to be racing Miriam and the reader to a terrible inevitable ending. As a person who usually reads lighter fare, the sense of impending doom hanging over the story filled me with dread.

That’s not a criticism, of course – when a book makes you feel something so strongly, the writer’s done a good job. And a reasonable person wouldn’t expect a read full of sunshine and roses from a story about someone surrounded by constant death.

It was a relief, though, to find some light at the end of the tunnel after all, and a ray of hope for Miriam, whose basic decency finally manages to claw its way free from her hard shell and arrest the story’s terrible downward spiral. Certainly not a Happily Ever After, which wouldn’t have suited the tone of the book at all, but a hint of redemption that raises interesting possibilities for the next book in the series.

“Grimdark” is a subgenre of fantasy that’s big at the moment, due to the popularity of authors like Joe Abercrombie and George RR Martin, but usually appears in epic fantasy, in medieval-type secondary worlds. I haven’t seen it used in urban fantasy like this before. (It may have, of course – I’m not claiming to be familiar with the entirety of the urban fantasy genre – but it was a new experience for me.)

If you like your fantasy grim and edgy but you’re tired of the swords-and-sorcery flavour, Blackbirds could be a good choice for you. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a well-written, immersive experience.

Next up in “A Fantasy Alphabet”: C is for Chosen.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Focused writing demons

This is the first sentence of my still-nameless Dragon novel. This is about the fourth first sentence I’ve tried, and doubtless won’t be the last.

So, yeah – hi! This is me waving to you from the wilds of Revisionland. How’s it all going, you ask? Not too foul, if you can overlook the whole but we still don’t have a name for the damned book thing. I finally made it all the way through the first pass of revision, which is a new achievement for me. I usually give up long before this stage. See? Progress!

Now I’m doing a second pass, adding in setting details (since I always forget to put those in) and generally smoothing things over, making the writing prettiful, ensuring people’s eyes don’t mysteriously change colour halfway through, things like that.

I’ve written up a very Serious and Responsible Writing Schedule for the year, according to which I will have this revision finished by the end of next week. I must have been feeling very energetic the day I wrote that schedule! It says I’m going to write four novels this year.

Maybe I was temporarily possessed? If so, I hope that highly focused writing-machine-demon intends to come back and finish the job. I’m not sure I can manage it on my own.

Still, I find that even if your plans are a tad, shall we say? – optimistic – you generally get a lot more done when you have a plan than when you just mosey along without one, even if you don’t achieve everything you hoped to.

So that’s the … er …. plan. Finish this round of revisions by the end of next week and get this nameless sucker out to some beta readers.

Or else the Demons of Intense Writing Focus will steal my soul.