Sunday, December 27, 2015

Writing Vivid Settings: Professional Techniques for Fiction Authors (Writer's Craft Book 10), by Rayne Hall

Book cover This book opened my eyes on multiple levels. First of all it went right through my Dunning–Kruger effect that made me hope that writing would be easy. Second, it showed me how to see the world as a writer, which is hugely valuable.

Writing Vivid Settings is also a value packed reference book. Rayne Hall doesn't go artificially raising your expectation level - you know the type: "in this book I will show you how to eliminate hunger and solve poverty, but before that...", he instead just goes right into it. In fact the transition to actual useful information was so abrupt that I found myself feeling grateful before I could even understand what the book was about. Then, when I did, it hit me even harder, because I understood not only what I was missing in my writing, but also what I was missing in my every day perception.

If I were to summarize the book, it is all about consciously describing from the point of view of your characters, in a way that makes the reader connect emotionally and subconsciously to the character and scene. In Hall's view there is no such thing as objective scenes, they are defined more than anything else by the character that observes them. The book advises to describe through the senses: smells, sounds, the lighting of the room, the way things feel to the touch, etc, then go towards what the character would most likely notice, based on their own personality and background, making sure to use similes so that the memory of the scene becomes anchored in the reader's mind in the same way it would in the mind of the observer in the book. Yes, it does sound weird, doesn't it? Make the reader feel as the person who doesn't really exist except in the writer's head.

Each chapter in the book explains elements on how to describe the surroundings, when to use them, how to use them, what to avoid, professional examples from other books and some assignments to make you get right to it. And there is where it becomes interesting. When I told my wife about it, she immediately recognized exercises for "grounding", something that is used in mindfulness and gestalt psychology. As an example: describe the smells in the room, then the way the light enters it and how it changes the colors, then some background sounds, all by using verbs that are very specific and indicative of the character's mood and similes that would be indicative of the character's background. I kind of mixed several chapters in this, so you can get the point. Well, when is the last time you ever did something like that in your life? When were you last conscious of the sounds and smells around you and what they evoke? When did you last compare the light in a place to a living thing, with a mind of its own, just because you can? It is all about bringing all those vague perceptions to a form that can be communicated, to others and to yourself.

That is the trick to good writing, for sure, but also a way of observing the world around you. Suddenly, I felt like a little child that doesn't see the world around because he doesn't know how. I found myself going places and trying to describe the scene as instructed in the book - many of the assignments in it suggest doing right that, anyway - and it was hard. It was more than hard, it felt impossible. Like living your life on a psychologist's bench, always asking you "what does that mean?" and "how does it make you feel?" and "what will that lead to?". But how alive the world seemed while doing that! Aware of my own senses, feelings and their roots, I could suddenly understand people who enjoy life for its own sake. The book's description is "Do you want your readers to feel like they're really there—in the place where the story happens?" After reading it, it seemed that I was never there in the first place.

It probably doesn't say things differently from other writing books, but it certainly opened my eyes. I also absolutely loved how it didn't start with marketing bullshit and got right into it, with theory, examples and exercises. It can be used as a reference, before and after writing, since it has exercises on improving already existing work. I think this is a great book.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Trek The Next Generation: Starfleet Academy Book Series - 1,2 and 3, by Peter David

book covers I've decided to read some of the stuff that takes place in the Star Trek universe, for research purposes. I was particularly interested in Starfleet Academy and, since Next Generation was clearly the best Star Trek series yet, I went with that one. So here I am reviewing the first three in a fourteen book series called Star Trek The Next Generation: Starfleet Academy Book Series, all written by Peter David. And, boy, am I disappointed!

It's not that I expected some high end drama, but in reality each one of these books is a booklet that one can read in about 2 hours. All three of them together are barely a novel. And the thing is that this is exactly what I was looking for: a history of the crew of the Enterprise from when they were cadets. What am I disappointed for? It is a "written by numbers" book. It is one of those "write a novel in nine days" thing, only each is probably written in five. The characters are shallow, undeveloped, details are missing and there is no real science fiction in there. I mean the real stuff, the one that takes into account centuries of cultural and technological evolution in which we had eugenic wars and a third World War, in which we encountered a myriad of alien species that are very different from us. There is no social commentary, no psychological evolution, no high technology and no real personal drama. And I understand. Just take a look at the bibliography of Peter David, it needs its own page. The man is a writing monster. However, it is clearly a quantity vs quality thing.

Anyway, I will review all three books as a single story, which in fact it is. All about Worf at the Academy, Worf's First Adventure is about proving himself in a simulated battle against the Romulans, while Line of Fire and Survival are about him taking command of a diplomatic mission on a joint Federation-Klingon colony.

From the first pages we get that Worf has a conflicted personality, stuck somewhere between the strict tenets of the Klingon culture and the Human education from his parents, unclear if he is more Klingon or more Human. His parents are proud of him and his adoptive brother as they embark for the Starfleet Academy, but from then on, for three "books" of adventure, we don't hear anything about those parents anymore. In fact, the first book is there merely to prove Worf's superiority over his human brother who is forced to leave the Academy as soon as the story ends. Afterward, we don't read anything about him, either. There are more pages dedicated to grumpy and violent behavior than it is to what the Academy entails, what are the courses, or how disjointed lectures can form a cadet into an officer in a four year standard program. It is not explained why some are engineers and some are in security, even when they are taking the same classes. Nor is it made obvious how the teaching methods in the twentyfourth century differ from the ones in 1980. Worf simply floats from one sequence to the other, like in a dream, without the need for continuity or context or even common sense.

To summarize: Worf comes to the Academy, learns nothing new and his innate values and abilities help him go through the challenges posed by a Starfleet training. I mean, really, there is a part there about how Worf was taught to be in a certain way and not helping a team member when in need was simply not conceivable. So basically... he remains unchanged. True, Worf is one of the most stubborn and difficult to change characters in Star Trek, but still, a good story needs some sort of development, some sort of life changing challenge, any kind of challenge at all.

In truth, this level of writing makes me more confident on my prospects of writing books myself, but I don't want to read stuff like this.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Is Syfy finally living up to its name? The Expanse: Finally the Sci-Fi we deserve!

The asteroid belt, the main stage of the show I have always been bad mouthing the Sci-Fi Channel, later, after 17 years, renamed to SyFy, as if they wanted to distance themselves from the genre they were supposed to promote. Why? Because I was born in Romania, a place of rancid communism and cultural isolation. After the Revolution, Romanian television stations were scarce in showing SF, and when they did it was always if there was nothing "better" to show, like sports or stupid peasant comedy shows. I grew up with science fiction books and a thirst for sci-fi movies and series. All this time I was dreaming of these foreign channels that I've been hearing about. Amazing to think that there was a SciFi Channel out there, where they were showing sci-fi all day long!

Of course, the reality of it is that science fiction only recently started to pay off. While I was dreaming of a channel that was all Star Trek, Babylon 5, Farscape, BSG, even Blake's 7, showing all new SF movies in the interim, the truth was less than stellar. They were showing crappy, mass produced, cheap programs that was all they could afford. Many of them were reality TV. I wasn't actually able to ever watch the SciFi Channel as a television station, anyway. But I have had contact with other similar ones and I was not impressed. So I judged them by their productions, stuff like Sharknado.

Lately though, I feel like I have to swallow my disdain, after they started doing really interesting stuff like Z Nation, which may be low budget, but well written: exactly what I have been waiting for from the Internet, but failed to materialize. Since writing should be the smallest effort in a show, I expected it to far outweigh production values, but until now, I have rarely seen stuff like that. After loving Z-Nation, now they started with a TV adaptation of The Expanse book series and it is amazing!

A well thought out universe in the near future, where the Solar System has been colonized and the three political entities are Earth, the Asteroid Belt and Mars, locked in an awkward standoff of military and economical influences. The show has really good effects and its attention to details, no doubt coming from the book, but well translated to TV, is great! The African ethnic influences on the Belter culture, the East-Asian preponderance in Earth leadership and the weird mixes of cultures all over, are really cool, but what I appreciate to no end is the realism of the space technology. There is a little inadvertence between script and reality, of course, but most of the stuff in the first 4 episodes is really believable (meaning it is achievable within the science and resources that we know today). The characters are deep and interesting, their interactions weaving together and apart in a very well coordinated dance.

But what I like about The Expanse more than all the production values, great writing and complex characterization is that it is a courageous enterprise. While I was watching it with my wife she was constantly pestering me with questions about stuff that she didn't understand. This, for once, is not a lowest denominator kind of show, it is hard sci-fi for hardcore sci-fi fans! And well done enough so that even on and off fans like my wife would be able to appreciate!

To summarize: watch The Expanse. I have high hopes for it!

Friday, December 18, 2015

The birth of Jesus

We are three in the room, all dressed casually, but I know them for what they are: angels. And they are here to kill me. I fire bullet after bullet, but they hit in weird places in the room, as if I am not even aiming straight. I spit at the first one, defiance my only weapon. The spit ball goes sideways, at a 60 degree angle from my target. Illusion! I aim the gun 60 degrees in the other direction and fire three bullets. The angel falls down.

My gun is pulled from my hand by invisible forces and the second assassin is upon me. He tries to kill me, but he can't. I've taken precautions. Pig meat during this holy day makes me unclean and angels can only kill pure creatures. The angel snarls "You thought pork would save you?" A ball of pure light grows from his open right hand. Unfortunately for me, angels can also purify one by touch alone. I am powerless in his hands. I know I am going to die. As the energy touches my temple I feel the excruciatingly painful ecstasy of purification. In that fraction of a blink of an eye, I feel I can be anybody, do anything. I choose to have telekinesis and get my gun back. I shoot the angel full of holes.

"Who the hell are you?", the dying angel murmurs. "I am Jesus of Nazareth", I reply. He scoffs "That place doesn't even exist!". "Not yet", I grin as he breathes his last.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Nine Day Novel: Writing Fiction: How to Use Story Structure and Write Your Fiction Novel Faster (Fiction Writing Basics Book 2), by Steve Windsor

book cover This book itself was written in two days and it shows. Fortunately for Steve Windsor, the author, it is also a damn useful book, concise and mostly to the point. Full disclosure: I've decided to study writing and hopefully write a novel. This is the first book I have read about the subject.

Meant as a reference, Nine Day Novel: Writing Fiction: How to Use Story Structure and Write Your Fiction Novel Faster is going for covering structure and speed, identifying a commonly used template for fiction and applying it for creating the structure of the book. Windsor then prepares the future author for a nine day schedule in which to write a 100000 word novel - which is at the lower end spectrum of what is considered one, but still technically a novel - even indicating ways to gain the time without making huge changes to your way of life. You know, stuff like not watching TV series (damn you, Steve!!).

He names the template 4PSS (four part story structure) which looks kind of like this:
  1. SETUP
    • Opening scenes
    • Killer Hook Event
    • Establish setting, scene (location), stakes of hero
    • Foreshadow coming events
    • Set up the inciting incident
    • First plot point - inciting incident
  2. REACTION – retreat, regroup, run
    • Reaction to first plot point
    • First pinch point - allude to evil force – Physical middle of Part 2
    • Reaction to pinch point
    • Lead up to midpoint
    • Midpoint of the story
    • Revelation - figure out what you are up against – Physical middle of your Novel
  3. PROACTION - Doomed attempt to take action
    • Reaction to midpoint
    • Second pinch point - allude to evil force again
    • Reaction to second pinch point
    • Pre second plot point lull - give the reader a tidbit of info – take a breath
    • Lead up to second plot point
    • Second plot point - the world changes again
    • Start the Ticking Clock
  4. RESOLUTION
    • Hero accepts reality of the situation
    • Climax battle scene
    • Final Resolution
    • New equilibrium/cliffhanger if writing a series
Actually, it looks exactly like this. I've downloaded it from his web site. He even goes the extra mile to create a story with us and point out famous books that used this structure.

Bottom line: as a reference, it is a great little thing. It is actually part of a Nine Day Novel series that covers outlining, writing, self editing, self publishing, etc. It's too bad he plugs the Scrivener book writing software tool, which only seems to work on Mac. I've tried installing the Windows version and it is a crappy Java bull that never went past the start of the installer. That may indicate that the book is slightly dated, but it's not, it has been published in January 2015, at least on Amazon.

Friday, December 04, 2015