It’s that time again: the time I report back on my latest reads and give you my brief review of each book as I inch my way toward my yearly goal.
For February I read a romantic novel for a review club I belong to, a high-fantasy novel from the 80s, and a non-fiction work on plotting and outlining a novel.
This edition brings a new feature I’ve decided to add, called “What I Learned.” As the all-wise Stephen King dictated, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” (One of many, many pearls from On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft.) Part of the aim of my reading goal is to improve my writing skills–in addition to expanding my worldview and having adventures. Every book, even the worst ones I have read, has taught me something–about life and about writing. That’s what is so great about a book: it’s teaching disguised as entertainment. Like orange-flavored cold medicine.
In light of that, I will share with you the golden nugget I extracted from each of these figurative mines. Sometimes I benefited from seeing the pitfalls the author fell into, getting a lesson in what not to do. Other times I gleaned from observing a master at work at his craft and managed to pick up something from watching them, always with the hope of putting it into practice in my own pieces.
(I participate in Amazon’s Associate program. Using the links provided below to make a purchase may earn me a small commission, while costing you nothing extra. This does not influence my review. I am not paid for my opinions, which are freely and honestly given. Thank you!)
Yesterday: A Novel of Reincarnation, by Samyann
In Short: romantic, contemporary and historical (lemme ‘splain below)
Warnings: steamy scenes
Who Should Read: romance readers who like rich historical stories
I read Yesterday as an assignment for a book review group I joined, where you get free e-books in exchange for an honest review. (I’ll talk about this group in a later post, when I have more experience with the company to give you a good idea of what you can expect, should you be interested in signing up).
This was an exciting and engaging story about love transcending time. When Amanda (great name for a character–maaayyy have been a factor in my choosing this book) rescues Mark from the scene of an accident, they both get the feeling they have met before. Their love story is told through a combination of present-day interactions and historical flashbacks.
The flashbacks were my favorite parts. They reminded me a good deal of Gone with the Wind, as they were set in the Civil War and the male lead came across very Rhett Butler-esque. The heroine is painted as a strong-minded woman, although there are times when Mark borders on the macho, and their relationship sometimes comes across as codependent, a view not assisted by their being together for nearly every scene, despite their supposedly being responsible adults with important jobs. It’s no worse (or better) than Twilight, though, and I found the book to be very enjoyable, with just a smattering of minor errors I felt compelled to share in the review I gave it.
What I Learned: Pacing is important. There were times I wanted a break from having Amanda and Mark together, just to give them–and me–some breathing room. Their present-day story felt compacted and rushed. I also noticed a few instances where conversations did not progress organically: People would make remarks or have mood swings out of left-field. As tempting as it is to push characters into the directions we want, writers instead need to be careful to lead them where we want them to go, lest we risk pushing the reader away.
Daggerspell (Deverry Series, Book One), by Katharine Kerr
In Short: fantasy, adventure, magic
Warnings: lots of strange names for people and places; jumps around in time
Who Should Read: 80s-style high-fantasy readers, people who enjoyed Wonder Woman for all the kickass ladies, Game of Thrones fans
Full disclosure: I bought this book at McKay’s Used Books because I was looking to expand my experience of fantasy books for an upcoming project and because the book was $.10. That’s right: ten cents.
The story’s basis is a love triangle that ends tragically, resulting in one of the lovers’ having to live on for centuries in order to try to right the situation when the other lovers are reincarnated. The book is narrated by the cursed lover but is really the story of the woman whose wyrd, or destiny, he must make right.
It doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement, but this book was worth every penny. Yes, all ten of them. It was exciting, with an impressive female lead and an intriguing premise. I’m surprised I haven’t heard of this author or series before, because the book is very well done and part of a series. (What self-respecting fantasy book isn’t?) Kerr deserves kudos for her contributions to the genre.
The only drawback was a common issue I run into with high-fantasy novels: the language. Not curse words. I mean the usual nouns: people, places, and things. There is a pronunciation guide at the beginning that explains a lot (essentially, the author used Welsh as a basis), but it’s not only the issue of the mental gymnastics of trying to pronounce a name in your head; it’s that there are several people who have 3 incarnations, with a different name each time, and I had a little difficulty remembering who each was and when each existed. Not in such a way that it detracted from the reading itself, only insofar as I wanted to read into the author’s intent and make predictions. It wasn’t until I was finished that I found the chart in the back that lines them all up for you. If you start getting lost, just consult that page. Problem: solved.
Side Note: It seems to me George R. R. Martin must have read these books before he wrote the Game of Thrones series because there are several things that struck me as similar, not the least of which was a family of people with white-blond hair and a penchant for incest, and love triangles that echo throughout generations. (By the way, seeing a theme this month?) I don’t see nearly enough similarities to say Martin stole anything from Kerr, just enough to get the feeling that this could have been a influential book for him–whether consciously or otherwise I could not say.
What I Learned: It always amazes me that stories needn’t be told linearly. This book jumps around in time, beginning with the past of the present time (the main character’s childhood), then to her first incarnation, back to her adolescence, then again to her second incarnation, and back again to her as an adult. by “touching base” this way, the author made sure I understood who this was really about, kept her fresh in my mind, and at the same time got me to care what happened to her, no matter which incarnation she was in. With a story like this it can be tricky to know where to begin, but I think Kerr ordered the events in a logical, if not chronological, fashion.
In Short: writing advice, plotting, outlining
Warnings: large type (fewer words), sometimes belabors a point, Lolita spoilers
Who Should Read: writers looking for a useful outline format
First, the title. If you’re not familiar with the concept of pantsing–in the literary sense of the word–you most likely are wondering what on earth the removal of one’s pants has to do with writing. Briefly, then: pantsing vs. plotting is an argument writers get into about whether it’s better to make it up as we go (or, “by the seat of our pants”), or outline the bones before we get to the business of putting words on paper (or, “plot,” much as one would chart a course on a map). For those who are curious, I do both but would like to do a little more plotting, to save myself time in the future. Hence, my interest in this book.
I had this on my Wish List, and my dear friends were kind enough to send it to me for Christmas. (Thanks so much, Cassie and Gary!) I’m always looking for new ways to organize my thoughts in writing, and I found the plotting method in this book to be extremely simple and useful. I used it to check the structure of my work-in-progress, make sure I was telling a coherent story. So much happens within and around a story that it’s easy for a writer to get lost and forget what they set out to say.
The method outlined in this book is so simple, but very effective. It reminded me a lot of Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need “beat sheet.” (That book is basically the New Testament for screenwriters, second only to Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting.) It really helped me narrow my focus in my narrative. I am good at a lot of things, but picking out my theme and sticking to it is not one of them. Yet. But a tight-knit, fat-free plot goes a long way toward making a story successful–in a literary, not a financial sense–and I want to tell the best possible story I can, so anything that helps with that is very much appreciated.
Note about my warning: Hawker uses examples from various books, most particularly Charlotte’s Web and Lolita. (How often do you see those two works listed side-by-side?) In the course of using them, she gives away much of the plot, so if you’re really set on reading them, you may want to be careful or go ahead and get that out of the way before you read this.
What I Learned: I learned a very easy method for shaping my novels. Do I think it improved the time it takes me to write a novel? Hard to say until I go to write the next one. Likely, yes. Do I think I could write a novel in six weeks, as the author did? Doubtful, but with hard work and lots of practice, perhaps I could churn one out in 6 months. I’ve been working on my current novel for several years now, so anything is an improvement.