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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Wild and Wordy Westeros: A Song of Ice and Fire

Book #11 for 2011: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
Book #12 for 2011: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Book #13 for 2011: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Let’s see, according to my Nook, I have over the last three months read 3,477 pages of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (including the first book, A Game of Thrones, which I wrote about earlier). It is with great sincerity, then, that I say the following: Whew!

I’m not sure if that’s a whew! of admiration or a whew! of exhaustion, but it’s a whew! of something, that’s for sure. Martin is a terrific writer, one of my favorites, but he does like to go on and on and on and on and on and on and…next month he’ll be publishing another 1,000 pages or so for me to read, with still another two books left before the series is done. Assuming he doesn’t drop dead from carpal tunnel syndrome before he types the final words of the final book, that means I’ll probably eventually read somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 pages of Martin’s writing on this series alone.

A lot of you now know A Game of Thrones through the HBO series and a few of you have even read the book, but if you haven’t gotten beyond the first volume you may be wondering if the rest of the series is as good as the beginning. Well, no, it isn’t quite. But it comes awfully close. Martin’s writing can be trying at times. He likes to spend hundreds of pages setting up a situation, doling out exposition, even letting his myriad characters (and when you start counting the minor characters there’s a hell of a big myriad here) spend entire chapters in talky political wrangling or discussing the latest gossip about people who often have nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but once Martin has his plot wound up, he lets it explode and the result is thrilling in a way that popular fiction rarely is.

Consider A Storm of Swords, the third volume in the series. The first half is so full of characters being taken hostage, being rescued, and being carried to and fro about the novel’s vast countryside that I began to lose track of who was where, who was with whom and where they were supposed to be headed. My attention began to wander. But after I took a week off to read other things, I was blown away by the second half of the (1,068 page) book, where Martin unleashes one killer plot twist after another. By the time the book was over, he had completely changed the playing field and had me excited about plunging into yet another interminable volume of the series. For those plot twists alone I nominate A Storm of Swords as the second best book in the series, and would rank it ahead of A Game of Thrones if it had just been a little more tightly written.

Martin’s writing method is the same in all of the books of the series, or at least in the first three. As in A Game of Thrones, he assembles a group of viewpoint characters (Game of Thrones has eight) and assigns each a plot thread. Every chapter is named for the viewpoint character that will be followed in it, so you immediately know which plot thread you’re in, even if it’s been a couple of hundred pages since that character was last heard from. Sometimes I found I had to go back to the last chapter about that character (something that’s surprisingly easy to do on the Nook) to remember what the hell was happening in that plot thread, but because Martin usually ends his chapters on some important story development or character revelation, I generally found myself eager to learn what the next development would be in that thread.

The one book where this method begins to fail is the fourth, A Feast for Crows. Martin gets carried away with introducing new characters and situations, to the point where the book becomes painfully exposition heavy. Whole new portions of Westeros geography and politics are opened to the reader along with new viewpoint characters and plot threads and Martin expects us to spend an unconscionable number of pages boning up on the details. At times this became way too plodding and I only kept reading because I knew that there was going to be some kind of payoff. (There was: Martin throws in yet another knockout of a plot twist near the end and there are enough intriguing developments late in the book to make me curious where things are headed.) A worse problem with this book is that Martin realized it was getting too long and removed half the ongoing plot threads and put them in the next book, A Dance with Dragons, which reportedly will tell stories taking place simultaneously with those in this book. This means that several of the best characters in the series, including Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen, are left out of the book entirely. And because Martin took so long to write these two volumes, that means that these characters have been missing for 11 years. No wonder Martin’s legions of fans are angry!

Fortunately, I only have to wait two weeks or so for the next volume. Not that I plan to read it immediately; I need a bit of a rest from Martin’s huge, beautifully conceived and frequently exasperating world. But I doubt that I’ll wait too long to read it. If I spend more than a couple of months before I rejoin Martin’s multitude of plot threads, I’ll have no hope whatsoever of remembering what’s going on. And though I read the 779 pages of A Game of Thrones for a second time to refresh my memory, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t bring myself to read all 3,477 pages of the first four volumes again!

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Teaching the Unteachable

Book #8 for 2011: Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
Book #9 for 2011: Characters & Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card
Book #10 for 2011: Plot by Ansen Dibell

When I was younger, I dabbled quite a bit in writing fiction. The result included four science fiction novels (one of which I sold twice, but which never appeared because both publishers folded or changed editorial hands before the book could come out), eleven books in the Hardy Boys series and three YA mysteries in a series that I can assure you you’ve never heard of. In those days, I was of the firm belief that fiction was not something that could be taught or even learned by anything other than example. To figure out how to write fiction, you had to read fiction, and the more fiction you read the better.

I still think this is largely true, though I’ve come over the years to suspect that my conviction that fiction couldn’t be taught was too rigid. I think there are certain rules — or perhaps, more properly, suggestions — that can be laid down by experienced authors to less experienced authors to provide direction to their work and that even more experienced authors can profit from reading about them. When I noticed that my library had a section of books on writing fiction, I decided that maybe there were a few more things about the subject that I wanted (and perhaps even needed) to learn and so I chose three of the books at random to read. (This was an interruption of my ongoing reading of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, which I now plan to resume and will discuss in a later post.)

Despite their titles, which suggest that each of the above books is about something completely different, each is actually about the same thing: the development of plot and character in the creation of story. In a sense, these are the only things that a book on writing fiction can be about (except perhaps for prose style, which was the subject of another book at the library that I may come back to later). Although the authors of the second and third books try, there’s no way that a discussion of character can be completely divorced from a discussion of plot (or vice-versa), because the two elements of storytelling are too closely intertwined and neither can exist apart from the other. Nonetheless, each book looks at this subject — call it character/plot development — from a different viewpoint and with a different emphasis.

These books are all part of a series published by Writer’s Digest Books in the late 80s and early 90s. All of the authors have taught writing and/or literature and by coincidence each has written and published science fiction, though I didn’t choose the books for that reason. My guess as to why science fiction writers may be overly represented in a series of books about writing fiction is that they may be among the last authors who take all types of fiction, from the popular to the literary, with equal seriousness and therefore can discuss writing in a way that is applicable to a wider spectrum of writers. But that’s just a guess on my part.

Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles & Ends isn’t really about beginnings, middles and ends. Rather, she uses the chronological structure of a piece of fiction as a convenient framework for discussing how various aspects of character and plot should be introduced into a story. I especially liked her discussion of the role of the first two scenes in a story (and, like all the authors here, she is discussing both short stories and novels). The discussion is concise, filled with suggestions and examples, and it’s hard to imagine anyone finishing this part of the book without having some fairly concrete ideas about writing a story of their own. In fact, one of the things I most enjoyed about Kress’s book is that she is able to discuss fiction simultaneously on the abstract and concrete levels, which gives her suggestions both wide applicability and immediate utility. You could apply her story breakdown to almost any kind of fiction while still feeling as though Kress is guiding your hand fairly precisely through the process.

Orson Scott Card’s book is about inventing characters and is considerably longer than the Kress book, but I came away with the sense that much more of what he had to say was already obvious to me as a reader and would be obvious to any other reasonably eclectic reader of fiction. The best part of the book concerns authorial viewpoint (a subject that all three writers tackle) and is rather impressively exhaustive in the range of possible viewpoints that he discusses, from first-person narration to omniscient author to limited third-person viewpoint, with a number of shadings in between. He discusses the uses, advantages and disadvantages of each and supplies extensive examples from his own prose. And while I could probably sum the whole discussion up into two sentences — use either first-person narration or limited-third person in your fiction and don’t switch viewpoint characters unless there’s a clear narrative break — that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading Card’s more detailed overview, if only to learn what those terms mean.

Ansen Dibell (a pseudonym for the late Nancy Ann Dibble, a literature professor turned professional writer who must have been one of the last women who felt it was necessary to take a male-sounding penname when writing science fiction) writes about the construction of story and does an impressive job of it. Much of what she has to say struck me as non-obvious but quite sensible and if some of it seems a bit idiosyncratic, less a set of guidelines than some ideas that might work better for some writers than for others, I came away feeling that parts of the discussion were superb. For instance, I liked her idea of creating parallel characters in stories (for instance, Marley and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol) who mirror each other so perfectly that when one of those characters has a life experience or makes a decision that the other doesn’t the importance of that deviation is made starkly obvious by the difference it makes between their lives. It’s a technique I hope to try one day.

If you have to choose only one of these books to read before the next NaNoWriMo, I recommend the Kress. It’s not only the shortest but I felt that she packed a better-rounded view of the writing process into 109 pages than the other authors did into longer volumes, though in part that’s because she gave herself a more comprehensive subject to write on. But it’s also clear that Kress is as conversant with literary fiction as with popular fiction (this also seems true of Dibell though somewhat less of Card) and this makes her crisp discussion of story structure useful to would-be writers who would like to write one, the other or both. And she provides exercises you can apply to your own fiction to see how well you’re meeting the expectations she sets for you in the text. I plan to reread it and take notes.

In Praise of the Barnes & Noble Nook

Some friends of mine were recently singing the praises of Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader. And, indeed, the Kindle is a worthy little device, but I’m going to put in a good word here for the Barnes & Noble Nook, not just because I have one — well, two, actually — but because I think that with the possible exception of the pricey iPad, it’s the best e-reader on the market. Amy bought me the original e-ink Nook for our anniversary last year and I loved it. This year I splurged and bought myself a Color Nook. And Barnes & Noble has just come out with a really cool new e-ink model that, in my opinion, blows away the comparably priced ($139) Kindle.

The Color Nook is beautiful. It has a lovely touch screen interface (and not just that tiny touch screen interface that came with the first e-ink Nook). It’s basically a crippled tablet PC running the Android operating system. And even though it costs $250, which is barely more than half what the cheapest Android tablet costs, it reportedly can be converted to a real Android if you’re technically savvy and don’t mind voiding your warranty. (Supposedly the process can be reversed and warranty reinstated, but I don’t want to hassle with it because it’s already doing everything I want.) It does a great job of reading both epubs and heavily formatted color PDFs, like magazines. (I have a year’s worth of Scientific Americans on it in PDF format and they look great.) It has a Web browser, an email program, and an app store with a limited selection of Android apps, including the inevitable Angry Birds. And I can read it in the dark (which I happen to like).

The new e-ink Nook seems to be the only full touch screen reader at the $139 price point. I don’t know if it has any other tablet PC abilities, but it looks to read epubs beautifully and more easily than the original e-ink Nook, which required pressing buttons on the side to turn pages. Now you just swipe the screen, as with the iPad and the Color Nook.

The Kindle, by contrast, has no touch screen to my knowledge and no epub reading capabilities, which means that if you want to read those epub editions that you can download from many libraries (including the LA County ones and at least some of the New York City ones), you’d better know how to (a) crack the DRM and (b) convert it to Mobi. (It’s easier to do the second — just download the wonderful Calibre program — but if the file is DRMed you have to do the first before Calibre will allow you to do the conversion. And while I know how to crack DRM, I’m certainly not going to talk about it here.)

I think Barnes & Noble has the superior e-reader to Amazon (and, yes, you can also use the Nook to buy books directly online via the device itself, just like the Kindle), but Amazon has managed that rare magic trick that a few companies have pulled off over the years with brand names like iPod and Kleenex — they’ve made it synonymous with the product category. Anything else, even something superior, now looks like a cheap Kindle knockoff. Too bad, because I’d hate to see Barnes & Noble fail with a better product. (Not that the Kindle is chopped liver; I just think the Nook is better.)

And I might as well put in a full plug for Calibre while I’m at it. This product is free, downloadable from the link I just posted, runs on a variety of platforms, and is essentially an iTunes for e-book readers. (As far as I know it’ll work with any standalone reader on the market.) It even has a cover flow mode that gives you the virtual illusion of owning a shelf of books. Spend a little time learning it and you’ll find out how to download full metadata for your books, including covers, descriptions, review quotes and ISBN numbers. It will install the books to your device, no matter the brand, or take them back off, while still maintaining them in your computer’s library. It even has a built-in e-reader that will read books in several different formats on your computer display. And — best of all — it will convert among 16 different formats, so that if you want an epub edition instead of Mobi (or RTF, LIT, TXT, PDF, etc.), it will do the conversion at the click of a mouse and will even let you tweak parameters from a large dialog box while doing so. Anybody with a large collection of e-books really needs this to organize them. You’d be surprised how much this is like having an old-fashioned library at your electronic fingertips.

If it sounds like I’m really getting into this e-reader thing — I am.