Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ninety Minutes: A Graphic Depiction of War

(Note: This was written as a descriptive essay with strong narrative elements.  It's somewhat experimental.)

            For an hour and a half the world was a living Inferno.  There were no survivors.  Few corpses escaped complete mutilation.
            Smoke blanketed the field.  The grass, emerald green before the battle began, turned gray with ash within minutes.  The strongest-eyed sentinels lost vision beyond a few paces.  Men fired in random directions, unable to discern friend from foe.
            One party made the best of the fog of war.  The Dasoni mages improved their sight with incantations.  Red jets of flame and blue arcs of static cut down the Verox in their wake.  Veteran soldiers cried out at the sight of them, their green vestments dripping gore, eyes too white to be natural.  The mages limped through streams of flowing blood.  Spasms racked their bodies after each conjuring.
            Lord Kenneth, Captain of the Verox cavalry, alighted from his horse.  It collapsed in a heap on the ground.  Two of its legs bore slashes to the sinew, a third with multiple bullet wounds.  The Lord pulled his saber from its scabbard.  The equine perished after a single merciful thrust.  He shook his head at the loss of such a noble mount.
            A musketeer lay groaning at the base of an oak tree.  Leaves fluttered down upon his head, sticking to his sweat-damp hair.  He clutched his ankle, bone jutting from pale skin, with one hand.  The other hung limp at his side, wrapped in a makeshift bandage.  It pulsated, a cruelly rhythmic throb.  He murmured a prayer, looking skyward.
            Howitzer fire eclipsed all other noise at the Dasoni rear.  Burly men loaded iron balls and black powder into the gun barrels.  Their hands flew to cover their ears at the sight of each spark.  The projectiles disappeared in the smokescreen.  Who or what they struck was of no consequence to them.
            The Dasoni mages fell in waves.  Their muscles failed in near-unison.  Survivors from the Verox front paused in their flight.  They leered through the smoke, searching.  The mages succumbed to knife wounds in turn, or in some cases blows from Verox boots.
            Lord Kenneth pointed his saber forward, charging against a pocket of enemy infantry.  He danced with his foes, whipping his saber in complex arcs, parrying numerous blows.  A sharp pain erupted in his ribcage.  Cold fluid soaked through his overcoat.  He switched his saber to the other hand and continued to fight.  The throng of swords bent upon biting him further rose to a crescendo.  It was too much for the Lord.  A slash to his calf brought him to a knee.  His neck gave little resistance against multiple blades.
            Feeling slowly abandoned the musketeer.  His eyes rolled in a face devoid of any trace of color besides white flesh and dark ash.  He sighed, all pain evaporated.  The brown of his irises shrouded beneath drooping eyelids.  He stilled.
            The smoke began to clear.  Some of the artillerymen cheered, tired of chronic coughing.  They loaded another round of ammunition with little regard to their flank.  It proved to be an utter mistake.  Stragglers from the Dasoni cavalry surged toward the side of the battery.  By the time the horse’s hooves overtook the howitzer fire’s volume, it was too late. 
            When the last traces of smoke dispersed, the horror of the scene came to fruition.  Bodies were strewn out for acres.  Nothing stirred, save a few stray carrion birds.  Thousands lay lifeless on a frankly mundane plain.
            Only ninety minutes had passed.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Expansion Versus Addition: Brandon Sanderson's Third Law of Magic

Brandon Sanderson's Third Law of Magic states "expand what you already have before you add something new".  This refers, at its heart, to the complexity of magic systems, but the principle drips down into many areas.

A novel can only support a finite amount of elements.  There isn't a specific number.  It simply has bounds, somewhere.  Readers have further limitations to their patience.  If you throw a million different magic systems, five million characters, ten million important settings, and twenty million subplots into the same book, you'll have two major problems: the book will be dreadfully long and ninety-nine percent of readers will get confused and frustrated by chapter eight (or six or twenty).

Making a few attributes of your world-building elaborate will not only cut reader anxiety to shreds, it leads to wittier, more satisfying prose as well.  If there are half a dozen magic systems you want to incorporate into a novella, you'll probably want to combine and subtract powers until you're down to one or two well-developed systems.  Brandon suggests doing so by finding the commonalities among your magic systems (or whatever it is you're combining) and linking from there.  If two systems heavily involve nature, merge them into one system with a strong controlling purpose.

Don't forget that everything you write affects everything you've written and shall write in the future.  Magic sculpts economies, politics, medicine, etc.  You can start at any place in your world-building, yet your first decisions cascade everywhere else.  If you want a very war-intensive magic system, the culture of the people who use it must be influenced by it, most likely becoming violent and fierce.  The people may barter in the blood they stripped from their enemies.  They may worship a god who uses a blacksmith's hammer.  Some type of tree, the best for a light-weight shield, may be sacred.  A few seeds planted into your world will spring up into a full-fledged harvest.  The soil can't support too many plants.  They will choke each other out and deplete all the available nourishment.  I won't even start analyzing metaphorical crop rotation...

The basic lesson here is to not throw a pinch of every spice on your rack into your stew just because you want to give to more flavor.  Everything about it is bound to be terrible.  Choose a few key spices, chosen with the foods in your stew in mind, and drop them in to compliment the dish.  If something doesn't taste quite right, don't toss something new in, tweak the ingredients you already have.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

An Analysis of Five Lesser-Known First Lines

1.   "It began with President Coyle's children, Ethan and Zoe, both high-profile personalities since they had arrived in Washington, and probably even before that." - James Patterson's Kill Alex Cross

It's a fairytale-like opening, but executed well.  It gives you a lot of information from the get-go.  It's pretty solid.

2.   "In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three." - Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle

You kind of have to read the book to fully appreciate this.  It's pretty brilliant.

3.   "If someone had asked Jared Grace what jobs his brother and sister would have when they grew up, he would have had no trouble replying." - Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's The Field Guide

There's character setup and a tinge of "man v. self" conflict presented.  It's not incredible, but it's definitely good.

4.   "Morgarath, Lord of the Mountains of Rain and Night, former Baron of Gorlan in the Kingdom of Araluen, looked out over his bleak, rainswept domain and, for perhaps the thousandth time, cursed." - John Flanagan's The Ruins of Gorlan

Epic.  Perhaps too epic.  It's vivid, I'll give it that.  Plenty of world-building.  Tough one.

5.   "Last summer, the summer I turned twelve, was the summer Adam came." - Ann M. Martin's A Corner of the Universe

It sets things up adequately.  You have to read the rest of the paragraph to get the real kick, but I think the opener gets you to read at least that far, so no harm done.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lucy and the Water Sprite (Part 3 of 3)

          Lucy’s eyes were dampening as well.  “I’m going to see if I can find out where the oil’s coming from.  I’ll meet you at our usual spot later.”
          “Good idea,” said Maratha.  Then she sped off in the murk.
          Lucy blew her nose in a handkerchief she kept for emergencies.  This was definitely an emergency.  “Oh, dear,” she whispered.
          Not much farther on, Lucy spotted the neighbors’ mill.  The creek was dug wider here.  A big water wheel turned slowly.
          The last thing Lucy took in as she hurried toward the building was a motorcar parked very close to the creek.  “Wow!” she exclaimed.
          It wasn’t until she was right up against it that she noticed anything wrong.  A pool of black fluid lay beneath the front wheels.  It was flowing into the water.
          Lucy charged further up the hill to her neighbor’s small wooden farmhouse and knocked on the door.  Mrs. Burroughs peered out with a smile.  She looked around about Lucy’s head as if looking for someone else.  “Where are your—” she began.
          “Your motorcar is leaking oil into the creek.  It’s horrible,” cried Lucy.
          “Oh,” said Mrs. Burroughs.  “Let me get John.”  She walked through the house to the back porch.
          A burly man with a graying beard strolled up to the front door.  “Hello, missy.  What’s the problem?”
          “You’re new motorcar is leaking oil into the creek.”
          Mr. Burroughs frowned.  “I’ll have to hire a mechanic.  There can’t be too much spilled.  I’ll grab a bucket.”
          Lucy walked with Mr. Burroughs over to the shed and picked up the smallest bucket.  Mr. Burroughs showed her how to slick the very top of the water off and pour it in a hole his dog had dug in his yard.  The water began to clear.
          Lucy wiped sweat off her forehead.  She knew it would take a long time to clean everything up, but it would be worth it.
          Luckily, Maratha returned.  She brought her father with her this time.  When Mr. Burroughs turned his back to dump another bucket, Maratha’s father waved his hand and the oil was cleared!
          Maratha and Lucy shared a wide grin.  Mr. Burroughs looked bewildered at first when he saw the water.  Then he muttered, “Creek nymphs,” bid Lucy a good day, and went back inside.
          The creek was saved.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Don't Waste Words

I've said it before and I'm saying it again: don't waste words.  It was Polonius of Shakespeare's Hamlet who said, "brevity is the soul of wit."  His words weren't far from the truth.

Don't get me wrong, you can write a story of any length without wasting words.  Robert Jordan was a master of writing weighty tomes virtually devoid of extraneous ink.  As long as every sentence serves at least one purpose and the majority serve more than one, you're on the right track.

Any sentence that doesn't move the plot forward, develop characters, reveal setting, provide comical relief, foreshadow, or drastically change the mood of the scene is a waste of words.  Luckily, many sentences do at least one of those things.  Words are most-often wasted when describing something.  Here is an example:

Thomas led his band of bards down the main avenue of the city.  Vendors hawked their wares on both sides of the street.  A few dogs crept out of an alley, their fur matted and shaggy.  Thomas smiled broadly at a woman walking in the other direction, her eyes lined with thick, garish black paint.  She regarded him coldly.

The first sentence of the example pushes the plot forward.  If this was the first paragraph of a manuscript you could say that it also gives a hint at the characters.  Sentence two provides a small piece of setting information.  The following sentence is probably, for the most part, a waste of words.  It gives a minuscule sense of setting, but not enough to include it in the story unless it shall prove important later on.  Adverb aside, the fourth sentence is passable.  It gives a sense of Thomas' character and possibly foreshadows.  The second part of the sentence can be cut if it never ties in with character or setting.  One of the adjectives is an easy snip in any case.  The final sentence's fate depends upon the rest of the story.  Do women generally resent Thomas at first?  Will this woman prove important later on?  If the answer to at least one of these questions is "yes," then it's okay.  If not, it's most likely a waste of words.

Keep in mind, this is an opinionated subject.  Some people prefer extra description, making certain sentences useful rather than wasteful.  That's the biggest exception.  Know your audience before taking my advice into account.

In any case, the principle of "don't waste words" rings true.  The tough part is trying to effectively define "waste..."

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An Analysis of Five Famous First Lines

1.   "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." - Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina

This one isn't exactly fair.  It's a translation from Russia.  Assuming the meaning was taken as closely as possible, it isn't a particularly good opening.  For one, there's a semi-colon.  Who does that?  Second, it's so ambiguous it's outputting.  (Feel free to express dissent.)

2.   "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - George Orwell's 1984

The use of a comma and "and" throws this off a little.  Other than that, the sentence is intriguing and suave, two perfect attributes for an opener.

3.   "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." - Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities

I do not appreciate the length.

4.   "Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing." - Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote

The use of 3rd-narrative to give an instant impression of the protagonist is brilliant.

5.   "All this happened, more or less." - Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five

I wonder if the narrator is going to be a little unreliable?  Hmm...I'm going to say "yes".  This opener really makes you feel like you've opened a book.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lucy and the Water Sprite (Part 2 of 3)

          “Dip your dress in the water,” said Maratha.  “I think I can fix it.”
          Lucy crawled to the water’s edge and dunked the end of her dress into the creek.  The hole disappeared!  “My dress!” Lucy yelled.  New, shimmering fabric lay where the hole had been.
          “I made you a patch from the water,” said Maratha smiling.
          Lucy stared down at her dress, eyes wide.  “How did you do it?”
          Maratha looked puzzled.  “I weaved it from the water.”
          “That’s amazing.  Thank you, Maratha.”  Lucy brushed her hands across the seamless patch and stood.  “I’m ready to finish our adventure.”
          Maratha beamed.  “We aren’t too far now.”
          From there on the creek dipped and twisted constantly down the grassy hill.  Minnows swam more often in this stretch of water.
          Lucy continued at a brisk walk.  Her breathing was back to normal.  She couldn’t stop playing with her dress as she trudged on.
          The ground went perfectly flat for a few paces before curving upward.
          Maratha did a few spirals in the water.  “We’re here!” she cheered.
          The surface of the water was darker than usual.  Along the bank, the pebbles that should have been red or brown were mostly multi-colored.  It was like seeing a hundred tiny rainbows.
          Maratha’s smile began to droop.  “Something’s wrong here,” she said.
          “What is it?” asked Lucy.
          “The water,” said Maratha.  “It’s filthy.”
          “It does look funny,” said Lucy.
          “And it feels funny,” said Maratha.
          Lucy picked up one of the rainbow pebbles and rubbed her thumb across it.  It felt slippery.  “Why don’t we go downstream a bit more?” she suggested.
          “I think that’s a good idea,” said Maratha.  She led the way.
          Before long, the surface of the water changed to black.
          Maratha’s face turned white.  “Oh, no.”
          “The water,” said Lucy.  “It’s really muddy.”
          Maratha shook her head.  “Not muddy, oily.”
          “An oil spill!  In the country?” Lucy said, gasping.
          It looked like Maratha was crying, but the water hid any tears.  “I have to go back and tell my father.  This is horrible.”

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Cool Things To Use Sometime

I think I may have mentioned my file titled "Cool Things To Use Sometime" before.  Brandon Sanderson referenced his own Word document with the same name either on Writing Excuses or in one of his lectures (perhaps both).  As evident by its title, I use it to hold writing ideas that I want to use sometime.

Any time I get an idea that isn't large enough for a full story, I throw it in "Cool Things To Use Sometime".  My list is broken down into the three components of prose: plot, setting, and character.  Right now, each has eight or nine ideas of varying complexity.  Some are almost big enough to hold a story, others are only cool tidbits.

I recommend keeping a similar reference to any writer.  Too often I'll try to write a story the moment inspiration strikes, but it almost always falls flat.  If I write it down and let my emotions fade first things typically get better.  They don't even need to be particularly good ideas.  Anything that strikes you as "cool" in the slightest is appropriate to include.  Consider it another tool in your toolbox.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Kormak the Lucky

"Kormac the Lucky" by Eleanor Arnason has its problems.  Like many other stories in the July/August issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, it was written in 3rd-narrative.  That's not inherently bad, and this story does have a fairy-tale atmosphere to it, but it is not a children's story.  Some stories can get away with that.  This one doesn't fair too well.

The characters in "Kormak the Lucky" were adequately done.  There is plenty of room for improvement.  Kormak, partially because of the 3rd-narrative POV, was not as powerful as he should have been.  His title never shone through well.  Sure, he caught a few good breaks, but not enough to call him "The Lucky".  For a novelette, the number of characters was around the upper limit.  Luckily (pun-intended), the names were differ enough to keep confusion from occurring.  All things aside, no character was a star; the story lost something because of it.

This story's plot is interesting.  It's almost episodic, with strands of plot converging at the end.  The biggest disappointment was the few pieces that didn't get tied up in the resolute bow.  It's a forgivable offense, but one that probably should have been edited away.  I think Ms. Arnason was trying to add an element of mystery at the end of her story, yet it didn't quite go as planned, if that is indeed the case.  The pacing of the story suited its length.  Almost everything that happened was interesting.  Not bad.

Being a fantasy story, setting had to be done well for success.  It was the strongest point here.  While not 100% original, it put an urban fantasy spin on things that felt refreshing.  Descriptions were done well, although they could have been executed a little better.  The POV's weaknesses shown through quite often, which took a bite out of the story's appeal.

All in all, "Kormac the Lucky" gets a middling response.  I have to give it an 82% for noticeable problems.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Lucy and the Water Sprite (Part 1 of 3)

(Note: This story was written for school with a target audience of approximately 11.)

          Lucy ran down the bank as fast as her legs could carry her.  Flowers poked up from the ground in every direction, sloping down toward a burbling creek.  At the water’s edge, pebbles replaced the usual dirt of the meadow.  They soon made way to river stones and fast-moving water.
          Lucy giggled as she splashed around.  Her light yellow dress was soaked.  Brown pigtails clung to her neck.
          “Lucy,” came a voice.  Bubbles rose in the creek.  A woman’s face appeared just below the surface.  The outline of a blue gown showed around her.
          “Maratha!” Lucy squealed.  She stopped playing in the water at once.
          “Having fun?” asked Maratha.
          Lucy nodded.  “Lots.”
          “Good,” said Maratha.  “Do you want to go on a hunt with me?”
          Lucy looked scared.  “A hunt!  For bunnies?  For stags?  I can’t hunt an animal!”
          Maratha’s forehead crinkled.  “No, not for animals, for pebbles.”
          “Oh!” Lucy cried.  “But there are pebbles all over.”
          Maratha’s smile widened.  “I’m not looking for just any pebble.  I’m searching for a rainbow pebble.  I’ve only ever seen one rainbow pebble in the entire creek, but I hear there are many downstream.”
          “I’ll go, I’ll go,” said Lucy, jumping up and down.  “Lead me there.”
          Maratha’s face disappeared, then reappeared a few paces down the creek.  Lucy skipped along the bank to follow.
          The grass beside the water looked like it went on for miles before dropping into a misty valley.  Maratha swam until the creek turned into a small waterfall, droplets flying up onto Lucy’s pale, sweat-covered face.  There, she had to flatten herself on the bottom and inch slowly down the fall.
          Lucy sat down at the foot of the waterfall.  “Can we rest awhile?” Lucy asked.
          Maratha nodded.  “I’m sorry.  I forgot that we’ve gone a long way for a little girl.”
          “That’s okay, Maratha,” Lucy said, breathing heavy.  “Just let me smooth out my dress and catch my breath.”  She ran her hands down the folds of her dress.  Suddenly, she stopped.  Her finger wiggled inside a hole over her tummy.  Lucy began to cry.
          “Why are you crying?” asked Maratha.
          “I tore my dress,” Lucy sobbed.  “Mama and Papa won’t be very happy.”

Thursday, September 5, 2013


Description is one of the most important aspects of writing fiction.  It conveys plot, setting, and character, while also adding flavor.  Poor description ruins prose.  It is of utmost importance that you get it right, and right for your particular market.

The amount of description in a story should vary based upon the story's length.  Flash fiction has sharp bursts of description with a "rule of thumb" "two sentence per subject" max.  Short stories have a little more leniency, but not much.  Once you hit novel length, large swathes of text tend to be description.  The largest difference is pacing.  Slow books have little dialogue and tons of description; thrillers favor plot over character and setting development, leading to lots of dialogue and more active description.

Every sentence should serve more than one purpose.  It may develop a character and flesh out the setting, set the mood and inch the plot forward, do all four, or something else entirely.  A single paragraph of extraneous text can throw many stories out of alignment.  Don't let that happen.

What you want to do with your description is up to you, but at least be consistent.  If you want to use a lot of description to play with voice in the first scene, you should continue doing so unless the voice changes.  Doing so will help your pacing as well.  If you want an intentional change in pace, be careful in how you do so.

A thought-provoking sentence of description will beat a page of drawn-out bloat any day.  Be sharp, not lofty, at least 99% of the time.  Do description right and you are a massive step toward greatness.  Fail in it and so will your prose.  No pressure.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

IWSG---I'm Not Reading Fast Enough

This is my second post for Alex J. Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group.  From Mr. Cavanaugh's blog: "Purpose: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!"

I am currently subscribed to three magazines: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Analog Science Fiction and Fact.  There are 56 books on my Reading List.  That's not inherently a problem; however, it is a problem that new fiction I want to read is being written faster than I can read the old stuff.

I should probably not subscribe to any more magazines right now.  With football going on right now along with schoolwork, I hardly have enough time to blog let alone read enough to not fall behind.  It isn't exactly a problem to have a backlog of stories to read when new issues are released, but I'd like to feel as if I'd been lying in wait for another monthly/bimonthly dose of fiction.

My novel-reading is at a trickle.  I'm currently working on Elantris and Children of the Mind.  Neither have I made much progress in the last couple weeks.

With the days racing by, I'm not sure if I'll get all the fiction I want to read read before I start applying for editing jobs in less than six years.  That may sound like a massive amount of time, but if you account for the size of some of the books on my List I'll need every second to come into the job market having read enough and studied my craft enough to succeed.

The simple answer is to pick things up, give up otherwise free time to read.  In many cases I don't have much of a problem with that once I've settled in.  However, it's really hard to pick a book over television.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Favorite Books In Different Genres

MG (General)

Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda

YA Dark Fantasy

The Abhorsen Chronicles by Garth Nix

YA Urban Fantasy

Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan

Science Fiction

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Epic Fantasy

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday 14 (Another One)

(Note: First sentence came as a prompt from 1000th monkey's Flash Fiction Friday 14.)

     I knew it would be an ugly morning when the smell of scotch was stronger than the smell of coffee.  My boss and his girlfriend were fighting again.  His sober stretches were getting increasingly shorter as he managed to suck the soul of his latest victim.  I really wish I wasn’t speaking literally.
     “It’s as if she doesn’t love me anymore,” my boss said into his bottle.  “I always save that emotion till last, but what’s the point now?”  He threw a hand down on his adding machine.
     “Morning, sir,” I said, then scurried to my desk at the front of the office.  I wish I could just clock in like a normal employee.  My boss prefers a warm welcome over a time card.  I’ve gotten good at faking a smile when I come in each morning.
     The monthly phone call came a few hours later, days earlier than usual.  “That’s horrible,” I said to the policeman, my standard, rehearsed reaction.  I pushed a button and set down the phone.  “Sir, you have a call on line one.”  As an afterthought, I added, “I’m so sorry.”