Tuesday, November 30, 2010


And you thought I was done with obscure titles...

In case you couldn't guess, the theme for today is reflecting on National Novel Writing Month. As I off-handedly predicted some time ago, I didn't win. The Fool's Errand came in at 18,307 words. Distant and no cigar. I mean, in theory, I could have pulled an all-nighter last night (and an all-dayer, followed by an until-midnighter) and maybe managed it, but it wouldn't have been any fun and it wouldn't have been fair to my kids, colleagues, or principal (the Abigail would probably have been ok with it). However, as always, I come away with some important lessons.

Most strikingly, I have realized that I can't write a novel that I don't believe in. Weird, huh? I wonder if there's anyone else in the world suffering from this bizarre disability.

Facetiousness aside, I have also realized, in light of the last three years of NaNo, that the best way to tell if I really believe in a novel is whether or not I have passed through five or six versions, dicked around with several kinds of notes and setting bibles, and switched beginnings and point of view schemes several times. In 2008, I didn't finish Ghostly Tam Lin, because I didn't really believe in it and it was a brand new project. In 2009, I finished What Sacred Games One: Heaven and Earth, which was the newest version of an idea I'd been kicking around for about five years and for which I had exhaustive mental notes and an abortive first draft. And now, in 2010, I didn't finish The Fool's Errand, another brand new project which I think is neat but - in retrospect - don't really believe in either (though, as the Abigail pointed out, I definitely had more faith in The Fool's Errand than I ever did in Ghostly Tam Lin). Stepping outside of NaNo, I was finally able to finish Knights of the Land under similar circumstances.

I hear you asking yourself: "So, what's the big deal? Mark is good at finishing stuff that he's dicked around with for years? But seriously, who isn't? I mean, finishing stuff is admirable, but how is that really useful?" Clearly I have magic powers, since I can read your thoughts in such detail.

What's useful about this realization is the secondary realization: I am much less of a discovery writer than I thought I was. Discovery writers make it up as they go along. That's how I write... the first time. The second time I attack a project, however, I'm building off the ruins of the first attempt. And the third time, I'm building off the ruins of the second. Periodically I break the structure down and build something only vaguely similar out of the same bricks, and then build on the new structure with subsequent iterations. And so on, until completion.

Essentially (and this is the Cliff's Notes version), I am using drafts as outlines. Which means that I'm more of an outliner than I thought I was. More importantly, this means that maybe if I try actually writing an outline with my ideas, rather than a series of abortive drafts, I could shave many drafts - and possibly many years - off my creative process.

Of course, I still need a way to figure out which ideas I am sufficiently passionate about to make them worth my while... but I'll tackle this one problem at a time.

So, I don't win a NaNo crown this year. Instead, I take home the good start to a novel that I might finish some day and some hard earned lessons. While victory would have been nice, I can't really ask for more.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Show Me...

Weapons-grade nonsense.

This phrase just popped into my head last night, and I'm curious to hear what you make of it.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Zeppelin at Avadon Hill

Another not-a-NaNoWriMo-post. Isn't this fun? It has nothing to do with the fact that I'm probably not going to in NaNo this year... nothing at all.

After Mur Lafferty's interview with P.G. Holyfield, I decided that I should finally suck it up and check out Murder at Avedon Hill. The news that Murder at Avadon Hill was published as a real live book (much like Shadowmagic, which I reviewed last time I posted) I just finished listening to the podcast version of the novel, and my final impression is of a deeply fascinating, deeply flawed book, one that I am very glad I got the chance to experience and you should definitely consider checking out.

First of all, the basics. Murder at Avedon Hill takes place in the world of Caern, a fantasy world distinguished by one of its pantheon's unique habits. The world's gods - the Children of Az, a paternal creator-deity - are periodically born into mortal bodies, to live out mortal lives and die mortal deaths. This is pretty much the Children of Az's only way of influencing events in Caern, as Az has (say that ten times fast) forbidden them from visiting the world in person, ever since the after-effects of divine tourism turned the walls between the worlds into swiss cheese and nearly destroyed Caern. Most of the world's supernatural stuff can be traced back to either something that crept into the world through one of these holes or the after-effects of a Child of Az's life as a mortal.

Against this backdrop, we have Avedon Hill, a small town that survives by guarding  pass between two of Caern's major nations: Yew and Grozh (Dragon snot? Yew, Grozh!). We also have Gretta Platt, Lord Avedon's beautiful house-mistress (that's a secretary and bookkeeper, you filthy-minded weirdo). Unfortunately for Gretta (and everyone else), Gretta is killed in the prologue and her body nearly drained of blood, throwing Avedon Hill into all kinds of chaos.

Into this Cuisinart of greed, lust, and deception walk Arames Kragen, a martial-arts-wielding psychic advisor, and his valet, Arrin, who is actually a prince of the nation of Yew. All Arames and Arrin want is to use the pass that Avedon Hill guards to continue into Grozh for a conference, but what they get is a murder mystery.

In tone, Murder at Avedon Hill resembles the medieval monk mysteries of Ellis Peters and the like, with the addition of familiar fantasy elements like elves, dwarves, magic-wielding priests, shapechangers, glowing rocks, and magic potions made of moths (your guess is as good as mine).

I really enjoyed Murder at Avedon Hill  - and I'll get to the good stuff soon - but I think it's flaws bear closer scrutiny. Murder at Avedon Hill is based on notes from P.G. Holyfield's attempt to create a module for BioWare's Neverwinter Nights, an interactive D&D-based game that was, for its time, incredibly versatile. Murder at Avedon Hill's characters have all weathered the transition from D&D clone to novel fairly well, but I don't think the same can be said for the world of Caern. As I've said before, translating roleplaying into writing isn't always easy.

My problem with Caern is, ultimately, that the world has a lot of unnecessary nods to the D&D basics. There are dwarves and elves and monks and magic and even half-orcs, and it all behaves more or less as you'd expect it to. There are no surprises in the setting, just things that Holyfield doesn't bother to tell you upfront. Worse, many of these things don't really matter to the story. Elves and dwarves exist - and we hear all about them - but we don't actually get to meet any (well, one character is a half-dwarf, but it doesn't end up mattering to the story). The story's half-orc could just as easily have been a big, bluff dude known for a short temper. The setting's one truly unique and fascinating setting element - the gods and the aftereffects of their lives as mortals - gets buried in a wave of business-as-usual fantasy.

The writing itself has a few notable flaws as well. Perhaps its a side-effect of the story's past in D&D and video games - and perhaps it's not - but Holyfield's lovingly detailed blow-by-blow narrations of the story's combats are a little too much for me. I love a good battle, but I don't need fight scenes that stretch on for entire chapters. The mystery itself is also a little bit clumsy. I enjoy mysteries that come down to human motivations, and I get frustrated by mysteries that fall back on madness and irrationality. Unfortunately, Murder at Avedon Hill proves to be the latter. There were also a few awkward and frequently repeated constructions - "he shook his head from side to side," for example (as if anyone ever shook their head up and down as opposed to simply "nodding") - but I'm sure Holyfield or his editor caught those before the creation of the print edition.

Finally, Holyfield doesn't write the mystery as tightly as he should. Mysteries are hard to write because they must written so tightly. Magic, on the other hand, is usually quite sloppy. Unless you're Brandon Sanderson, magic can easily become an excuse for stuff to happen, and stuff just happening is the antithesis of a tightly written mystery. Alas, I don't feel that Holyfield rises to the challenge of mixing magic and mystery in Murder at Avedon Hill. The final solution of the mystery depends upon unique and unforeshadowed magical phenomenon, making the final explication a bit of a cheat.

But I did say that I ultimately enjoyed the novel, didn't I? Enough of the negative, let's get positive!

First of all, as I mentioned above, I really enjoyed the Children of Az and their earthly (Caernly?) day-tripping. I like the themes of ordinary humans (and dwarves and elves and half-orcs, I guess...) struggling against vast, uncaring, and disruptive powers. Although it wasn't as strong a theme as I would have liked, I enjoyed that a great deal of Caern's supernatural stuff came from the Children and their misadventures. Also in the world of setting, I enjoyed the well-done and realistic blending of religion and politics in Holyfield's portrayal of Caern's various organizations and how they have dealt with the legacy of the Children of Az.

More importantly, I enjoyed Holyfield's characters and their relationships. Murder at Avedon Hill hits a few personal high notes of mine: complex love triangles, smug mentors and eager students, complex antiheroes, and characters who want something done or a secret revealed but can't bring themselves to do it themselves thanks to their prior commitments and are forced to manipulate others to do it for them.I found the love triangle particularly fascinating, for all that it was merely a footnote in the larger story. The relationship between Arames (smug mentor) and Arrin was much more central and equally enjoyable.

In closing, I think that Murder at Avedon Hill is something you should check out for all its flaws. I also recommend considering checking out the print edition - I know I am. I'm curious to see which of the traits I believed to be flaws Holyfield and his editors chose to change and which they chose to leave alone.

Until next time, remember: the tunnels beneath your city are always more extensive than you think they are, monk!

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Yeah, I know I said a NaNoWriMo update was coming next. I lied.

Back when I was first getting into podcasts, the Abigail recommended I check out Shadowmagic by John Lenahan, a magician and comedian as well as a novelist. The podcast, by the way, is still available here and here. Lenahan's website describes Shadowmagic as "a rip roaring fun fantasy adventure," but really the book is much more. It's a story of facing the wonder and peril of magic, which is really the magic and peril of adulthood. Shadowmagic is a coming of age novel set against a backdrop of misunderstood prophecies, immortal feuds and dudes getting their hands hacked off.

Really, what's not to love?

Anyway, I am delighted to let you know that John Lenahan has grasped the golden ring of real life publication. Shadowmagic is now available in print! You can buy it at John Lenahan's website. And because John Lenahan is awesome, he has made certain that the ebook editions of Shadowmagic are actually cheaper than the real-life versions (a revolutionary idea, I know). The kindle version is only about $3, and a variety of ebook platforms from outside the U.S. are supported, off a link from Lenahan's website.

I really cannot recommend Shadowmagic enough. We are talking about top-notch plotting, pacing, character development, and world building here. Lenahan has a firm grasp of how to weave character defining events and choices together with the story's fantastic elements. Those fantastic elements are also incredibly well-chosen. Lenahan's Tir na Nog is lush and evocative, but there's no fat to cut. Every detail is relevant - necessary, even - and feeds back into those same character defining events and choices that make the book so compelling.

But wait, there's one last thing you should know! Although I don't want to take any (paying) business away from Lenahan, I also recommend his podcast readings. Lenahan is an excellent reader for his work and is part of why I enjoyed his books so much.

Well, what are you waiting for? Go buy Shadowmagic!

We'll be back next week with some reflections on NaNo. Promise. Honest.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sanderson, In Person

The Abigail and I just got back from a Brandon Sanderson signing at Borderlands Books. The occasion? The release of The Way of Kings, the first book in Sanderson's new Stormlight Archive series. And boy. Are my legs. Tired.

Actually, that's from our epic quest for Dynamo Donuts. We must have walked for almost an hour. But I digress.

Anyway, I was struck by several things about Brandon Sanderson. Firstly, he's awesome, extremely intelligent, and filled to the brim with geek-charisma and artistic integrity. I know I am verging on dangerous levels of fanboyism here, but I really do think that he and I would be friends, if the circumstances of our lives made that even remotely possible. Secondly, he is a great speaker, and did a good job entertaining his audience (especially once the lemonade showed up - Borderlands in-joke). Finally, Sanderson is a really good writer.

I know it's odd for me to say this after hearing Sanderson speak, as opposed to after, say, reading his books. Sanderson, however, is a rare find, a writer who can talk about his process without sounding pompous, incomprehensible, or both (I'm one of the last, I'm afraid).

Sanderson turns out to be somewhere between a discovery writer and an outliner. For the uninitiated, discovery writers (like myself) are those who prefer to begin with some characters, a premise, and see where things go. Outliners, on the other hand, like to know where they're going before they set out, something they accomplish with (you guessed it) outlines. Also for the uninitiated, discovery writers and outliners are sometimes quite argumentative, as though there were a "right" way to write.

Also for the uninitiated: go. The secrets of Hatanku are not for you. Come back when the elders have judged you a woman grown, and not before.

Anyway, Sanderson says that what he likes to do is start with a rough outline and character notes, but keep an open mind about how his understanding of the story might change. Sanderson's approach really drove home for me that there are very few "pure" discovery writers or outliners. Most of us are somewhere along a continuum, outlining and note writing a little, letting creativity take us here it will a lot (or vice versa).

I was also (possibly most) impressed by Sanderson's dedication to research and verisimilitude in character. The Abigail says that she read somewhere that Sanderson is a Mormon (oh, look, there's confirmation), but when he writes atheists (as he did in Mistborn), he does extensive research about atheist point of views, up to and including spending time on atheist message boards. He goes on similar question quests when writing anyone whose point of view differs significantly from his own. You've got to respect someone who goes to that much trouble to make sure his characters have valid points of view. Love or hate Sanderson's characterizations, there are no straw men in his worlds.

But most of all, I liked Sanderson's style. He's clearly smart, creative, and likes engaging with his fans. I will definitely keep an eye out for more opportunities to meet him in person.

Hopefully by then I'll have finished Sanderson's new book, the one the Abigail and I bought at Borderlands. I mean, seriously, have you seen this thing? Hatanku's hoary hemipenes, it's a doorstop!

Tune in next time for reflections on NaNoWriMo and 100% less hemipenes.