CSFF Blog Tour-Storm Siren, Day 2


cover_StormSirenOne good thing about a blog tour is that you get to compare what different readers think about the same book. This includes views about the writing, the story, the issues engendered, the genre, the characters, the pacing—whatever the bloggers wish to discuss.

A good tour also isn’t a rah-rah club. The participants will give genuine, honest reactions, so there will be positives and negatives. The current CSFF tour for Storm Siren by Mary Weber is no different. Here are some of the observations I’ve made half way through the tour.

First, I’d say there’s a consensus that this book is well written. There seems to be a split decision about the ending, however, and an equal mix concerning the level of darkness in the story. A fourth issue many participants in the tour mentioned was a dynamic opening scene followed by a slow section.

This pacing problem is one I’d like to address because I think it’s all too common and something I think is fairly easy to fix. Here’s how one CSFF blogger described the problem:

After an intense opening sequence, Storm Siren settled into a long, relatively quiet interval that built up the characters and their world, with all its dangers. The shift surprised me, but it didn’t dismay me. I’m not as hyped for action as some readers are; I like the building and the exploring. I like introspection, I love characters, and more to the point, I liked Mary Weber’s characters.

And yet I reached a point, reading this novel, where I was just waiting for something to change. (Shannon McDermott)

Others mentioned putting the book aside for a time or reaching a point where the pace picked up. The point is, there does seem to be bit of a lull. Some seemed to think this was a necessary aspect of the book—all the world-building and character-introduction pieces needed to be put in place.

I used to think that a natural lull was part of telling a story. After all, readers need to know who is who and where the characters are, what the places are like, and what’s at stake. While we’re learning all these things, it’s hard to keep the story moving forward.

But here’s the crux of the issue and why I believe the fix isn’t all that hard. All the world-building and character introduction can take as long as they need to with one proviso: the main character needs to have a goal to acquire what she needs or to fix the problem at issue. As long as she’s working toward something, readers will be patient as things unfold because they want to know if her plans succeed or not.

In Storm Siren, the story opens with the protagonist, a teenage girl named Nym, on the slave auction block. One thing that pops out is how feisty this girl is, how easily she reads what others are thinking, and even how much she wants to shield those weaker than she.

She’s interesting—a cross between a vulnerable young girl (she is a slave after all, and one who has been sold fourteen times in eleven years) and a strong, even cocky, resilient, nonchalant character who can handle anything, epitomized in this bit of internal monologue:

Eleven years of repeatedly being sold, and it’s sad, really, how familiar I’ve become with this conversation. Today, if Brea has her way, I will meet my fifteenth, which I suppose should actually bother me. But it doesn’t.

So there’s the issue: what is it that bothers Nym? Readers learn there are a few things, most notably her own anger which triggers uncontrollable destruction. But here’s the problem: Nym doesn’t have a plan to change or better her circumstances or to overcome the unfairness or escape. She’s not trying to enlist allies or work to improve her lot. Rather, she pretty much lets things happen. When things are bad, she toughs them out as best she can and when things are good, she proceeds with caution. But she doesn’t make any plan to overcome.

It’s this “go along” attitude, this lack of initiative, that reduces tension and thus slows the pace. As a reader I was not dragged forward by my desire to know if her plan would succeed because she didn’t have a plan and wasn’t working toward anything. Rather, things were, or were not, happening to her, or around her, or to her friends.

I found these things interesting, but I wasn’t emotionally invested until Nym had a goal and seized on something she believed she needed to do. At that point, the pace of the story picked up.

And now, I encourage you to read some of the excellent posts by CSFF Tour participants who are writing about Storm Siren. Steve Trower, who participates in the tour though he can seldom get books across the pond, wrote an especially funny post based on what he found out about the book on the Internet.

Chawna Schroeder, who is often a tough reviewer, wrote part 1 of her analysis and praised the craft by saying, “Storm Siren provides a phenomenal story with a strong driving plot and unpredictable characters.”

Joan Nienhuis looked at the various elements of the story and observed that there is more going on than winning a war between two countries: “The war is somewhat twofold. One aspect of it is for Nymia’s soul. Will she ever be healed of the pain and horror of what she did as a child?”

Good, thought-provoking reactions to Storm Siren. Be sure to see what others had to say in their posts. The list is at the bottom of the Day 1 post.

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A Draw Of Kings Review Continued


The Staff & The Sword trilogy covers

I ended the first half of my review of A Draw Of Kings by Patrick Carr by saying I wished for more. There’s a difference in saying the story left me wanting more, and I wanted more from the story. I’m afraid my reaction was closer to the latter position.

In reality, I thought the plot was filled with conflict and intrigue. As I described it last time, it had three distinct facets–the civil war, the three quests, and the face-off battles against evil.

I could make a case for each of those being a book in their own right. In fact, if Peter Jackson were making this into a movie, I’m pretty sure it would actually be three movies.

The point is, the story was dense, and in my thinking, too dense. This coiled and twisted plot created a couple problems. First, parts needed to either be played out fully, requiring many more pages, or resolved quickly in order to move on to The Next Important Thing.

If each had been played out fully, the book would have run closer to 800 pages than to 400. But resolving the issues quickly meant that the problems didn’t require a true struggle. Rather, they were solved in short order, with little difficulty, though some loss or failure was accrued.

Quick resolution has a way of lowering stakes, I think. If something isn’t hard to accomplish, or if losing doesn’t cost dearly, there’s a reduction of tension.

The civil war, then, ended with a minimum of conflict and some loss, but because of the ease with which it concluded, I never had the feel that the loss would make much of a difference. After all, when the circumstances appeared insurmountable, they were actually quickly and quite easily dispensed with.

The same played out in each of the three quests. Something dire appeared, but the struggle to overcome didn’t entail a great re-thinking of goals or strategies. There was no struggle apart from an initial conflict that ended up becoming a success through this clever maneuver or that act of bravery or the other display of character or strength.

Each quest, then, even when resulting in failure or partial failure, left me thinking the ensuing Battle would boil down to the same type of one plan, one confrontation, one quick result.

Furthermore, these conflicts didn’t seem married to the inner struggles the characters faced. I would like to have seen Errol struggle with the presence of his cruel father-priest, for instance. Instead, he made a rather quick business of moving on when he’d struggled mightily in the previous book.

And perhaps that’s why he didn’t need to deal with the issue again. But then the question is, why insert Antil into the story again? Adora’s anger toward him felt artificial. He was not someone she knew, and in the face of the death of hundreds of civilians, it seems petty for her to try and exact revenge, not for herself, but for Errol.

All this to say, the wonderful epic story begun in A Cast of Stones deserved more, from my way of thinking. Errol is a character much to be admired. He has real doubts, deep hurts, and great skills–some with which he was born, and some he developed through long hours and hard, hard work. He could have become bitter, but doesn’t, though the choice not to follow that path seems easily arrived at.

The world itself has layers of authority, political intrigue, allies and enemies, betrayers and deceivers. I would like to have had more time with the interplay of these elements.

Finally, a story this big requires an equally big cast, and there were so many characters in A Draw of Kings, it became hard to keep them straight (which is why most epic fantasy has a list of characters to go along with a good map!) Of course, if there had been more story, then these minor characters would have earned more page time and therefore become more fully developed and therefore more memorable.

How can I sum up this book? I’d say it was an adequate ending to a great story. It answered the questions and entertained. It moved quickly, without snags or delays.

I suppose I’m being hard on the novel because I think it could have been great. I think Patrick Carr is an excellent writer who could make the end as great as the beginning, if given enough time to do so.

Honestly, to complete this third book and have it on the shelves in the short amount of time since the release of The Hero’s Lot is a remarkable fete but perhaps not the best decision. I don’t know who determines these things, but I’ve voiced my thoughts on the six-month novel before. I’d rather see more time given writers to get a story right than to get it done.

Would I recommend The Staff & The Sword to readers? Absolutely! It’s a worthwhile story, highly entertaining, with lots to think about on the way. Would I buy the next Patrick Carr novel? Absolutely! He’s a wonderful writer and just needs time to do his magic. I hope he gets all he needs from here on.

How Important Are The Details?


pick, pickIn more than one article critiquing the Mark Burnett/Roma Downey TV mini-series The Bible, reviewers pointed out “picky” details–Adam portrayed as a European-ish white guy, not an African or a Middle Easterner. And beardless. More than once I read remarks about the angels outfitted much like Ninja warriors.

Are details like this important?

My first thought is, Come on, people, quite being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull us out of the story? Just recently I read a post by agent Steve Laube about inconsistencies in novels that editors don’t catch but readers do. It reminded me of a book I recently read in which basketball details were wrong.

For example, Team A faced off against Team B in the NBA finals, with Team B hosting game 1. Some pages later the series is 3-2 and game 6 is being played at Team A’s home court.

But hold on. Fans of pro basketball know the finals are a 2-3-2 format–games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) are played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) are played at the home of the two seed. So no way could game 6 be played on Team B’s home court if game 1 was at Team A’s.

There was a similar stumble earlier connected with basketball (in the NBA, only one free throw when a technical foul is called) and another one with the weather in Southern California (a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And another one on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines. It will take three days to reach her destination. She starts out on a Sunday and arrives … on a Sunday. O-o-kay.

But here’s the thing. If I were writing a review of this book, I would feel like I was being overly critical to point out these slips. I mean, did any of those matter in the long run? No. Will people who are not basketball fans, or residents of SoCal, even notice? Probably not. Does the day of the week really matter? Not really. Then what’s the big deal?

Do the details in fiction matter?

Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility. I’ve said before, one of the things I think J. K. Rowling did so well was construct an incredible fantasy world. Others say she merely played off British boarding schools and that may be true. But through the details Ms. Rowling included, the world of magic came alive.

Horseless carriages that convey themselves, a sorting hat, a whomping tree, portkeys, food that appears in dishes on the dining tables, a ceiling that reflects the weather outside, broken wands mis-repaired that send spells incorrectly–on and on, each detail woven into the story with a high degree of consistency. There weren’t three school houses in one book and four in another. The new students weren’t placed in theirs by the Sorting Hat in one and by the Sword of Gryffindor in another.

Of course, the longer the book, the greater number of details there are to keep straight. An epic story like the seven Harry Potter books requires a great deal of work to keep all the details straight.

But I’ll come back to the point–why does it matter? I said credibility or realism, if you will, and that’s perhaps the greatest point, but in tangent is the fact that inconsistencies may pull readers out of the “fictive dream.” Rather than living side by side with the characters, the reader stops: Wait a minute, didn’t she say the trip took three days, and didn’t she leave on a Sunday? Then how can they be arriving on a Sunday? Did I miss something?

Lack of clarity can do essentially the same thing. The details might be right, but if they aren’t expressed clearly, the reader is still stopping, still looking back and checking to see why what she thought had been conveyed actually was something different.

So yes, details matter. At least they should.

Do editors give a pass to certain authors because they know readers will buy, read, love, and praise their books no matter what? To rectify this, should reviewers actually start pointing out inconsistencies . . . or will the point be lost because others will cry, Stop being so picky!

What do you think? Do you notice inconsistencies? Do you think those things should be pointed out in reviews?

Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 1


After years and years of subscribing to Writer’s Digest, I just added The Writer to my writing resources. So far I’m not sorry.

One article in the October issue chronicles the worst mistakes in mystery writing. Some points were unique to the genre, but many were not. Some I’d already filed away in my mental folder of Things to Avoid, including coincidence or an act of God, narration masquerading as dialogue, a superfluity of viewpoints, and stereotypical characters.

Another point was “false starts.” At first I didn’t know what that referred to—prologues, maybe? As it turns out, this was in part also in my Things to Avoid list. The point of emphasis is that readers need to keep reading, so the first scene should intrigue. Readers should be asking, What happens next?

Pitfalls that dampen the intrigue are glumps of backstory, over-the-top “gore, profanity or explicit sex,” and the “flash forward,” usually formatted in, yes, a prologue.

I was familiar with the flash forward itself. The author of this particular article, Hallie Ephron, says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

The real point of this “false starts” issue, I think, is that readers need to keep reading. But that speaks to more than the beginning. If readers love the first five pages of a book, only to be bored silly in the next ten, I doubt seriously if they will feel the Need to Read.

And that’s the goal writers should have—make those readers care, make them want to keep going, make them impatient to pick up the book again if life forces them to put it down.

Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off? Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with, which I think is an automatic strike against the story. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through the life of their story. These have a strike against them too because it’s hard to care for a character who doesn’t care.

But the engaging character is only one part. The other is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says. It’s so easy to think the reader will “get” that the character description and backstory is vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is.

This one, I’ve learned the hard way, just isn’t so.

Published in: on September 15, 2008 at 1:02 pm  Comments Off on Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 1  
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Scene vs. Narrative


Brandilyn Collins, as gracious as she is talented, left a comment to yesterday’s post in which she remarked about the change in her style of writing since she was first published:

I like the books I write today, but they are different from Eyes of Elisha and Dread Champion. Those books were each about 120,000 words. Way too long for today’s standards and for what my publisher wants. The longer word count allows for multiple storylines and subplots. Can’t do that in the current word count.

However, if you’re referring to “leaner” as a style of writing, that’s a different thing. My style IS leaner today. That is, every word counts, whereas in EOE and DC I had longer paragraphs and was more wordy in general.

The thing is Eyes of Elisha came out in 2001, with Dread Champion following in 2002, so this change we’re talking about happened over the last six or so years.

By the way, this span of time has been the height of the Harry Potter craze, with books five through seven weighing in at 500 pages or more.

Is it genre then, that has created a distinct style?

I know people often talk about writing for the MTV generations, implying that these readers need things with graphics, written in sound bites, including sidebars, without depth. Thus, shorter books.

Of course, part of the “shorter book” concept might just be the economics of it. I mean, it’s what the candy company and the canned soup people did. Don’t raise the price; shrink the product.

Could publishers be taking that route? With the exception of those who have a blockbuster hit on their hands. Those books can come in at 600, 700 pages and the publisher will still clear a tidy profit. (Is that understated sufficiently, do you think? 😉 )

So, what does this have to do with “scene vs. narrative”? I suggest scene is leaner. Narrative tends to be wordy.

Here’s an example from the book I’m currently reading, Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (Bantam Books, 1995):

That afternoon I was back with Hod, practicing until I was sure my stave had mysteriously doubled its weight. Then food, and bed, and up again in the morning and back to Burrich’s tutelage. My learning filled my days, and any spare time I found was swallowed up with the chores associated with my learning, whether it was tack care for Burrich, or sweeping the armory and putting it back in order for Hod. In due time I found not one, or even two, but three entire sets of clothing, including stockings, set out one afternoon on my bed. Two were of fairly ordinary stuff, in a familiar brown that most of the children my age seemed to wear, but one was of thin blue cloth, and on the breast was a buck’s head, done in silver thread. Burrich and the other men-at-arms wore a leaping buck as their emblem. I had only seen the buck’s head on the jerkins of Regal and Verity. So I looked at it and wondered, but wondered, too, at the slash of red stitching that cut it diagonally, marching right over the design.

So ends one paragraph from pp. 68-69, followed by a scene (and I wonder how many of you managed to read the entire paragraph. 😮 Is blog reading affecting the way we want our fiction?). I opened the book at random to find that section of narrative, which, by the way, was preceded by several similar pages, and I feel confident I could find an example nearly every time I randomly selected a page.

The question I’m pondering is this: Rather than balancing scene and narrative, does the contemporary style of fiction shun narrative as a necessary evil to be avoided whenever possible? And the correlaries: Is fiction mirroring television, and should it? Are only certain genres, like suspense, pulled into a faster-paced style?

OR, is an overbalance of scene a result of “rules” enforced because new writers have a propensity to tell too much and tell poorly? In other words, are we Browne-and-King-ing narrative right out of our stories? Is this a tendency in Christian fiction alone, or are writers in the general market also writing less narrative?

Your thoughts on any of these questions?

Published in: on April 10, 2008 at 11:40 am  Comments (13)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – The Shadow and Night, Day 3


Is it me, or do these blog tours really get better and better? That’s a real question. I know I’m biased, but here’s what I see. Bloggers are genuinely entering into discussion about British author Chris Walley‘s Christian science fiction The Shadow and Night.

Once upon a time, the tour consisted mostly of standard reviews, with an occasional author interview. Now, bloggers are interacting with the book—”This is what the book made me think about” or “I noticed the author did this or that.” Then commenters are chiming in with agreement or disagreement or a new view on the subject. It’s … it’s … book buzz! 😀

I point that out because, as you may suspect, not all buzz is positive. When you start interacting with a work, you also voice the cons as much as the pros. I don’t view this as a black mark on the tour at all, especially in light of the standard PR quip: No PR is bad PR.

I mention this at all because as I’ve roamed about the blogsphere reading what others on the tour are saying, I see a consistent opinion expressed: the pace of The Shadow and Night is slow. Surprisingly, some look at this as a weakness while others view it as a strength. But even those who saw it as a weakness commented that they were so glad they stayed with the story through the slow parts because the pay-off later on was well worth it.

There have also been some comments saying that Walley has become a new favorite author or that the blogger has already ordered the next two books in the trilogy. Great stuff. The pace, for a good number of these bloggers, was not a factor that spoiled the story.

Another topic that has come up several times is the eschatological position of the book, since it starts off 11,000 years in the future and during a long run of peace after the Intervention that bound Satan. Sin still causes disease and death, but that’s about it. The opening chapters, then, portray characters at peace with one another and with God, not filled with gut-wrenching desires blocked at every turn. In other words, characters with next to no conflict. As tour participant John Otte said, he found himself rooting for evil—not to win, but just to show up.

At this point, I do want to interject, I thought the arrival of evil was foreshadowed appropriately. I thought there was an undercurrent of tension—change of some sort was on the way, but what exactly that would be … well, readers are going to have to be patient.

This reduced conflict, however, brings up another question. Are stories about Christians acting as Christians should, destined to be slow paced? Does evil always have to show up? Or can a story show in a gripping way the struggle with the evil that’s already there, in each character’s heart?

Some bloggers think that’s what Walley was able to accomplish. But my question remains. To pull this off, of necessity, must the pace then be slow?

Your thoughts?

Take time this week to see what other CSFF’ers are saying about The Shadow and Night: Brandon Barr Jim Black Justin Boyer Grace Bridges Jackie Castle Carol Bruce Collett Valerie Comer CSFF Blog Tour Gene Curtis D. G. D. Davidson Janey DeMeo Jeff Draper April Erwin Beth Goddard Marcus Goodyear Rebecca Grabill Jill Hart Katie Hart Michael Heald Timothy Hicks Christopher Hopper Jason Joyner Kait Carol Keen Mike Lynch Margaret Rachel Marks Shannon McNear Melissa Meeks Mirtika Pamela Morrisson Eve Nielsen John W. Otte John Ottinger Deena Peterson Rachelle Steve Rice Ashley Rutherford Chawna Schroeder James Somers Rachelle Sperling Donna Swanson Steve Trower Speculative Faith Robert Treskillard Jason Waguespac Laura Williams Timothy Wise

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