Musings on writing, lessons learned by an aspiring professional, book reviews, movie reviews, an occasional t.v. show review, and unashamed opinion.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

On The Book Shelf

As a follow-up to my last post, I thought I'd show you what's on my book shelf.  There were four books that influenced me above all others, but these are all the books I've bought over the years that I've loved enough to keep.  The ones I don't care to display get donated to used bookstores or friends and family.  (Can't help having certain ones on the shelf--my wife made me make space for some of her books as well.)

What's on your book shelf?

-I have to geek out a little... I have signed and personalized books from George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Orson Scott Card, Brandon Sanderson, David Farland, and James Dashner.  I'll be really proud when I can add J.K. Rowling, Joe Abercrombie, and Bernard Cornwell to the list.

(I didn't give a whole shot of the book shelf, but, just so ya'll know, I made it.  With my own freaking hands.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The 4 Books that Influenced Me Most

I have read a lot of books over the years.  Most aspiring authors ought to be able to claim the same.  I have lots of favorites, written in many genres and styles.  Some stories have stuck with me since I was a kid, while others have faded into the forgotten corners of time.  I thought it would be fun to reflect on the 4 that have influenced me the most--specifically as a writer.  These are the stories that I not only consider some of the greatest out there, but are also the ones I look up to and hope to emulate in my own writing.  In no particular order, they are as follows:

The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan.  This book played a huge role in my life because it got me hooked on fantasy.  Besides a handful of child books I can't even remember titles for, I'd only read one fantasy author before opening the pages on Jordan's masterpiece.  I'd seen kids in school reading The Wheel of Time series--I was the one poking fun at them for reading something so geeky (back then I figured fantasy was for the real losers--science fiction was the cool genre).  It wasn't until after high school that I swallowed my pride and picked Eye up.  I read the entire series in six months.  (There were ten books at the time.)  That was nearly eleven years ago.  I've been primarily a fantasy reader--and, incidentally, a fantasy writer--ever since.  I owe a lot to Robert Jordan and his epic story.

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, was the first science fiction I can remember reading.  My aunt recommended it to me after we watched Starship Troopers.  (I was in sixth or seventh grade--it was so cool that she rented an R rated movie for me to watch!)  Card was my gateway-drug into speculative fiction, and Ender's Game remains one of my favorites to this day.  Card created the perfect world for a twelve year old boy to get lost in.  This is a book everyone should read.  If I owe my love for fantasy to Robert Jordan, I owe my love of reading to Orson Scott Card.

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.  Hollywood did poor service to this classic a few years back.  If you're reading this and agree with me that Cristo is brilliant, but have failed to actually read the book--basing your opinion off of that crapy movie--I weep for you.  Seriously, read this novel.  It isn't just a great story.  It's essential reading for anyone desiring an education in literature.  The tale of Edmond Dantes is relevant, heart-breaking, and beautiful.  It is, in my humble opinion, as close to perfect as any work of art can be.  And it taught me that tragedy in fiction is powerful.  I think this is where my love of dark stories began, for Dantes's journey is as dark as they come.  It also has hope at the end of the tunnel--something that I believe all the best fiction offers.

Frank Herbert is the J.R.R. Tolkien of science fiction.  At least I and many others consider him so.  He didn't invent the wheel, but he turned the farmer's cart into a freaking Rolls Royce.  I was already a fan of science fiction when I first picked up Dune in jr. high, but I've never read an author since who has topped him for sheer mastery of the genre.  Dune showed me that a good story is more than just one thing.  It is character, plot, setting, delivery, and ideas.  Dune showed me that fiction can be big--that it can do more than simply entertain.  It has taught me to not give up (Frank Herbert was rejected many, many times before Dune was finally published), and that thought should go into my writing.  If I can write anywhere near the level of Herbert... Okay, scratch that.  It's fun to dream, though, right?

That's it.  It was going to be five books, but I had a hard time deciding on the last.  (I was leaning toward Shogun, but I was afraid I'd leave some other book out that had a bigger impact on me.)  I have to add that I was influenced to write this post by Justin, over at Staffer's book review.  Thanks, Justin!

What books have influenced you?


Monday, September 24, 2012

Pushing Ice

Pushing Ice, my friends, is such an awesome book. If you've never read Alastair Reynolds, this is a great place to start. It's much more of a hard sf story than, say, the Miles Vorkosigan books, but it's worth slogging through the thicker science mumbo-jumbo because the story is thrilling and moves at a good pace. Science fiction fans, give this novel your time!

Pushing Ice is about a group of comet miners in the 2050's, who work the solar system in their ship, Rockhopper. They are out on a job when something unusual happens. One of Saturn's moons--Janus--starts accelerating out of the solar system. Rockhopper is the closest ship to this phenomenon, and Earth sends her crew out to see what they can discover. As the mining crew nears Janus things go terribly wrong, and they are forced to make several hard choices, ultimately landing on Janus for survival. Problem is, Janus is gaining speed. The rescue of Rockhopper's crew becomes all but impossible as they are carried far from Earth, out into interstellar space.

Pushing Ice is excellent science fiction. The characters are wonderful, the settings imaginative and captivating. If I had been sitting while listening to this book I would have been on the edge of my seat for the entire 19 hours.

John Lee narrates, so nothing disappointing there. The ending didn't quite grab me, but 17 of the 19 hours were so awesome that I can live with where things were left. Pushing Ice is a standalone, so you'll have a complete story that will tie up most plot lines. I'd love it if Reynolds came back to these characters and gave them another book.  Pushing Ice gets 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Warrior's Apprentice and The Vor Game

I took a Science Fiction lit course at Dixie College years ago.  In it, I was introduced to several authors I'd never read.  Lois McMaster Bujold was one of them, and The Warrior's Apprentice was the book assigned.  For whatever reason (okay, I know the reason--I was too busy making out with my wife-to-be) I only skimmed the book to know enough to get the test questions right.

College students are bloody idiots.

 I could have joined the Miles Vorkosigan fan club back then.  Luckily I never forgot the book or author, and have just now finished my first Bujold book. It was great.  So great in fact, that I already finished my second Bujold book--The Vor Game--too.


This series is Space Opera.  Remember my post about the sub-genre last week?  Now you know what I mean when I say this.  It's great Space Opera.  Miles Vorkosigan is one of those classic characters--flawed but extremely capable and intelligent.  I wonder if Tyrion Lannister was somewhat influenced by Miles Vorkosigan, because they are very similar.  If Miles doesn't grab your interest, I don't know who will.

The Warrior's Apprentice follows Miles as a seventeen-year-old, trying to make it into his society's military academy.  He has high aspirations, and the family lineage and brains to back him up.  Problem is, he was born with serious birth defects--he's 4ft 9in tall, and his bones are as brittle as chalk.  During his physical exam for the academy, he breaks both his legs going over a climbing wall and his dreams of a military career are dashed.

And then he accidentaly becomes the admiral of a mercenary fleet...

TWA is a quick, fun read, and gets a solid 4 out of 5 stars.

The Vor Game was a better book--it takes place 3 or 4 years after Apprentice.  It won the Hugo back in 1991.  I would love to tell you all about it, but I can't.  Even the smallest of info has the potential to spoil Apprentice.  So you'll just have to take my advice--it's brilliant.  I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

If you haven't heard of this series, you're welcome.  If you have but haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for?  If you like adventure, witty characters, romance, space battles, and just plain good story telling, you must read Bujold's Vorkosigan saga.

That's all!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Folding Knife, and my discovery of K.J. Parker

I just finished reading one of the best fantasy novels I've read this year--The Folding Knife, by K.J. Parker.  It took me two months.  Not because it's a long book (only 442 pgs) but because I am a slow reader, preferring to listen instead.  Audible doesn't have any of Parker's books available, though, so I did this one the old fashion way.  I will rave about the book in just a moment, but I wanted to point out that I'd never heard of Parker before a couple months ago.  I really have no idea how this author escaped my attention--accept that the books aren't very commercial (I've only read the one so far, but from the bit of research I've done it seems Parker's work is all this way).  They are more literary fantasy than anything, which made The Folding Knife a very different read from what I usually get in to.  That said, Parker is brilliant.  Commence raving...

I loved this book, but for some reason it is hard to pin down why.  You see, it does everything that I've been told not to do by writers in my own writing.  Ever heard of the "show don't tell" line?  Writers (or people who think they know about writing) love to say this.  What it means is that rather than just telling me as narrator what your characters are doing, you show me by putting me behind their eyes, by giving me a window into their minds.  This way I experience the world of your story as if I were in it myself.  It's a hard skill to master, but when it's done right it makes a novel so much better.  Well, Parker is all tell in TFK.  It is the strangest thing, but damnit I was still immersed in this story.  I've found that I think about its main character and the things he gets into.  I find that I care about the people and world.  I guess it doesn't really matter how a story is told as long as it is accomplishing this.

Also, there are huge passages of exposition.  The narrative is told in a mostly-focused-on-one-person omnipotent.  The pacing is slow and there isn't a drop of magic to be found.  This is a different fantasy, probably not for everyone.

The story follows one man's rise and fall from power.  I'm not giving anything away, since the very first pages of the book tell you that Basso has already lost everything.  It even tells you why.  Don't worry, though, knowing that the protagonist will ultimately fail doesn't hurt this tale in the least.  In fact, I completely forgot about being told in the beginning what happens, because I was so engrossed (and it took me a while to read) in Basso's life.  You can't help but admire this complex character.  There's a lot of political maneuvering, tons of economics, and a bit of warfare.  Think of the life of Julius Caesar after he's returned to Rome and you'll have some idea of the flavor of TFK.  If you don't like a heavy dose of tragedy in your fiction... never mind.  I'm not going to tell you to avoid this book if you only like happy endings.  Come on.  Stretch yourself a little.  This book deserves to be read.  It's practically demanding your time.

Not sure why the title is what it is--oh sure, there's a folding knife mentioned, but it isn't a serious theme or anything.  At least not that I caught on my read-through.  And no one is really sure who K.J. Parker is, nor if Parker is a man or woman.  Weird that an author needs so much privacy, but whatever.  Parker is a master storyteller, and this book was very well done.  The Folding Knife gets 5 stars out of 5 from this reader.

Meanwhile, a couple of days later...

Okay.  I know why the book is titled what it is.  Dumb of me not to think of it before, but it did come to me, if a little late.  I'm not afraid to admit I'm an idiot... on occasion.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

GUTGAA Meet and Greet

I was told by a friend about the Gearing Up to Get an Agent Blogfest that is about to begin, and decided to join in on the fun.  Here's a little introduction to me for those of you new here:

-Where do you write?
A: Typically, on the couch or on my "soft chair", which is the most comfortable piece of furniture in my house.  My Beagle chewed it up, my wife wants me to get rid of it, but I keep it because it's awesome.  

-Quick. Go to your writing space, sit down and look to your left. What is the first thing you see?
A: The window that looks out into the shared area of my neighborhood. (No front yard for me.)

-Favorite time to write?
A: I discovered a couple of years ago that early morning works best for me.  I crawl out of bed at 5:00.  I can't say it's my favorite, because I've never been a morning person, but I get the majority of my words written before my wife and daughter wake up.  I even tried really early (4:30) for an extra half hour, but I soon found out that no one in their right mind gets up before the buttcrack of dawn.  

-Drink of choice while writing?
A: I don't drink anything most of the time.  This morning, however, I did have a glass of apple juice to sip at.  I really like apple juice.  

-When writing , do you listen to music or do you need complete silence?
A: I go through spurts.  If music is on, it's instrumental movie soundtracks.  My favorite soundtracks include: The Last Samurai, Appaloosa, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, any of the Lord of the Rings, Last of the Mohicans, and Braveheart.  Big, epic scores.  

-What was your inspiration for your latest manuscript and where did you find it?
A: My lastest inspiration came from a bigger-than-life historical figure, a somewhat lacking niche genre (YA Space Opera) and a little video game on the Xbox Live arcade.  You'll have to wait for the book to be published to see to see how they all mash up.  :) 

-What's your most valuable writing tip?
A: Write, write, write.  Perseverance is everything.  

There you have it.  Welcome.  I'm eager to meet new pals.     

What the crap is Space Opera?

Science Fiction and Fantasy have some funny insider terms that people unfamiliar with the genres tend to look at sideways.  Case in point: I posted my review of Caliban's War last week, and my dear sister (who actually reads my blog--very surprising) asked me what the crap Space Opera is.  I responded that it was exactly what it sounds--opera in space.  Who doesn't enjoy good opera?  Definition done.  She believed me for a minute, and then I couldn't help grinning at her.  No, Space Opera isn't opera in space.  In fact, music has nothing to do with it.  Space, on the other hand, is a very important part of this Science Fiction sub-genre.  So, let's break down Space Opera so those of you unfamiliar with the genre can understand it.  I think it's the easiest Sci-Fi genre for readers to get into, although that seems to have changed over the past couple of years as the dystopian has taken over.  (Yes, those of you loving Hunger Games are in fact reading Science Fiction... mmmwwahaha!  The nerds will get you one way or another!)

First and foremost, Space Opera is fun.  It's adventurous, it's romantic (not in the boy-meets-girl sense, but there can be that, too), it's large-scale, and it takes place primarily in space, or on an alien world.  This is the epic form of Sci-Fi.  Movies that fit into this sub-genre are Star Wars, Star Trek (especially the newer version), and John Carter (which nobody gave a proper chance, but it's a great movie).  Space Opera is more concerned with a great story than science.  If there is some kind of technology that is cool, but totally unfeasible under the laws of physics, it is likely found in a Space Opera, rather than Hard Sci-Fi.  If there is some sort of magic in a Sci-Fi story, like the Force in Star Wars, it is Space Opera.  Like I said, this sub-genre is fun.

The Fifth Element is a campy, fun film that pokes fun at its own genre.  For those of you who have seen it, remember the blue alien chick singing opera on the spaceship?  Funny stuff.  Luc Besson was purposefully making a joke about Space Opera.

Some would define Space Opera as being about galaxy-spanding empires, epic wars in space, and greater-than life characters.  This is true about some Space Opera stories, but not all.  Dune, for example, is an excellent story along these lines.  Leviathan Wakes, however, is a story that takes place in our own solar system, before humans have expanded out into the stars.  Both fall under the sub-genre  for reasons I've already listed, but each are very distinct in style and characters.  (And both kick butt.  Read them!)

Here are some of my favorite Space Opera books.  I highly recommend them, and have reviewed several on this blog at one time or another.

-Dune, by Frank Herbert
-Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
-Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card
-The Warrior's Apprentice, by Lois McMaster Bujold
-Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey
-The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds
-Hunter's Run, by George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, and Daniel Abraham
-Pandora's Star, by Peter F. Hamilton
-Old Man's War, by John Scalzi

I admit that I read more recent Space Opera than classic, but there are tons of other authors out there with great stories in the genre.  Find them.  Read them.  Love the form as much as I do.  And here's to hoping that you'll be able to read my YA Space Opera one day when I publish and take over the world with it.

That's all.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Captivating Readers

I recently stated on a blog that I preferred to be captivated by a story rather than surprised.  I love surprises and all, but I think that twists in stories are given too much credit sometimes.  There have been loads of books I've loved that haven't surprised me in the least.  I think it's fairly easy to write a twist that your audience doesn't see coming, and what happens after they've gotten past all the surprising parts in your book?  Will they want to read it again after they know how everything turns out?

 I would much rather read a book that sucks me in because of its rich setting or engaging characters--because it presents a world I would like to visit.  This is my goal as a writer.  I want to create stories that enchant readers, just as the books I read growing up did to me.

So, what captivates you as a reader?  Are you drawn to a story because of its alien worlds?  Interesting characters?  Clever prose?  Do you want a story to take you somewhere familiar?  How do you think you can captivate an audience?  What tools as writers do you use to keep your readers stuck in your stories?

That's all.  Something to think about.