Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: June 2007

Review: Ptolemy’s Gate


Ptolemy’s Gate, by Jonathan Stroud
9/10, a terrific conclusion to a wonderful trilogy

The counter to my argument against trilogies is that a good trilogy can pull off a more satisfying conclusion than a single novel on its own. Over three books, you have time to get to know and get invested in the characters, and if the story is told well, the payoff is that much richer for the more extended journey.

This story is told well. I could leave it at that, and in fact, I won’t give too many details of the story itself, because it really is best discovered by the reader. I just want to highlight a few of the points that I liked.

Stroud’s characters outshine his world-building as the jewel of this series. Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and Kitty are the stars, but every one of the minor characters is given the same loving attention, with the result that the world feels real and complete. It’s only upon reflection that you wonder about the Victorian-era feel with the modern technology, and wonder if Stroud might have done more to explain that demons took the place of technology, if that is indeed the case. But that is not really a flaw in the story so much as a texture of the world that wasn’t necessary to include, only noticeable by its absence, and then only in retrospect. There is a great moment in this book when Nathanial and Bartimaeus are discussing whether one of their enemies lied to them, and Bartimaeus says, no, that’s not his style. It’s a great moment because the description is true to the character, and because Bartimaeus is the kind of djinn who notices and counts on these little traits of character. He understands others: people, spirits, and everyone in between. That’s what makes him a survivor, despite the fact that his powers aren’t quite what he would like us to believe they are.

That’s also what makes him a great protagonist, because this series is really about people struggling to be different from what the world expects of them. Bartimaeus sees these qualities in the friends and enemies he has, and alone among them seems aware that there is a chance to rise above. We get a more thorough explanation of this rare insight as the story unfolds, not only in the present day, but back in ancient Egypt as well. Bartimaeus’s service to Ptolemy is shown in a series of asides, the young noble contrasted with the youngsters Bartimaeus is dealing with in the modern era. What seems like a bit of interesting background becomes an essential component of the story, as Kitty and Nathaniel have to unlock Ptolemy’s secret (with Bartimaeus’s help, naturally) in order to defeat their enemies and, as is the case in all good books, complete their own individual journeys.

There’s little I can say about this book specifically except that it works marvelously as a story, but even better as the capstone to one of the best YA series I’ve read. The Bartimaeus trilogy ranks up there with favorites like “The Dark Is Rising,” Madeleine L’Engle’s Murry family series, “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” and, of course, Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books. If you like YA fantasy, you have no excuse for not reading this trilogy. I am most indebted to those who pointed out this very fact to me and then bought me the trilogy to make sure it was remedied (which, coincidentally, is how I was led to read the “Harry Potter” books, too). Thanks to them–now I’m passing the recommendation on. Buy. Read.

Common Writing Mistakes

I love this post, not only for putting “loose vs. lose” at the top of the list, but also for giving me the Latin behind “i.e.” (id est) and “e.g.” (exempli gratia) and for the interesting bit of advice about apostrophes: “When in doubt, leave it out.” I hadn’t thought about it, but I do think an unnecessary apostrophe is more jarring than a missing one. If you really don’t know and don’t have a reference handy, I guess that’s not a bad rule of thumb.

[Edit: In the great Philadelphia Will Do blog, this headline today is timely.]

Review: The Golem’s Eye

The Golem’s Eye, by Jonathan Stroud
8/10, a thrilling adventure but somewhat of a letdown from the first

I have a bit of a peeve against trilogies that are clearly written as trilogies; something that comes out as “book 1” before the others are even published rubs me the wrong way; it shouldn’t, really, because why shouldn’t an author plan out a trilogy and know there are going to be three books in advance? Well, because you should be setting out to tell a story, and the story is as long as it should be. I don’t feel any annoyance at Ms. Rowling for planning a seven-book series, so why the bother about a trilogy? Maybe because they’re so common. Still, the three-act structure is a common enough one, and in this case I’ve no objection to reading more about Bartimaeus the djinn and his master, now known as John Mandrake.

Since the first book, Mandrake has come up in the world, now apprenticed to the Information Minister and working for Internal Affairs. But there’s a problem: an unknown monster has been ravaging London, and as it is a magical creature, it’s Internal Affairs’ problem. Mandrake is put in charge of the investigation as it is presumed to be connected with the shadowy Resistance that has been launching small raids on magicians for the past few years, which he is already in charge of investigating. And because he needs magical help of the first order, and some snappy comebacks, he summons again the djinn Bartimaeus.

Bartimaeus, having thought that the end of their association at the conclusion of the previous adventure was permanent, is none too pleased, but a judicious threat from Mandrake convinces him to cooperate this time. And so our heroes are off again on another adventure through a curiously time-frozen London, where computers are occasionally mentioned, but the flow of news and information is as sluggish as it was in colonial times.

The problem in this book is that Mandrake has grown up, now a lad of fourteen, and has spent two years under the inflexible tutelage of Ms. Whitwell, who we remember from being in charge of torturing prisoners in book one. He is eager for power, and from his master is learning all sorts of things, not just about powerful magic, but about undermining your enemies and currying political favor; about treating commoners and spirits with the same contempt; about putting yourself and your ambitions first. As a consequence, Mandrake is considerably less likable in this book than he was in the first. Bartimaeus has, of course, contempt for all humans, but even he channels the reader’s thoughts in his disappointment that Mandrake has grown up to be a typical magician.

Into the vacuum of sympathetic characters jumps Kitty Jones, a briefly appearing figure from book one, here fully realized as one of the leaders of the Resistance. Her story illuminates the plight of the commoners and the attitude of most of them: they toil for the magicians, but they don’t mind, because the magicians protect them from the evil foreigners and thus deserve everything they get. (One sees here, and in the third book, definite echoes of modern political issues.) Kitty herself is a scrappy, loyal fighter, who doesn’t accept that magicians deserve all they get. Like John Mandrake, she falls in with a crowd of people who value her abilities and want to help her; like him, she is nobler than the people who surround her; unlike him, she has the strength to carve out her own path.

In fact, the trio of main characters are skilfully drawn with some wonderful parallels. Bartimaeus is literally a slave; Mandrake is just as much a slave to the society he has joined, as is Kitty a slave to the magicians. Through Kitty’s rebellion against magicians, and eventually her companions, we gain a little bit of hope that Mandrake may exhibit similar strength of character. Alas, there is not much of that in this book, which appears to serve primarily to set up the third.

Don’t get me wrong: this book has all the charm, wit, and action of the first, in addition to which the class strife between the magicians and commoners is well explored and well drawn. I tore through this one as quickly as I did the first book. The problem is that there’s too much time spent introducing Kitty, and that, this being the second act of a planned trilogy, the development of the main character must take a downward turn before (one hopes) the final revelation and redemption. Kitty makes for a fascinating character, but she doesn’t have the interesting flaws of Nathaniel/John, nor the sarcastic flair of Bartimaeus, and watching John Mandrake’s descent into cold, calculating efficiency at the expense of human relationships is, well, just a bit depressing. The characters come together briefly at the end, but the overarching feeling from this book is one of intense loneliness on the part of all three.

Despite the problems, I recommend this book heartily, as a fun adventure on its own, and for the societal issues, but mostly because you have to get through this one to read the third one, and I’m hoping that Mandrake’s character arc will finish up in the third.

Happy Endings, and a New Tool

No, not me, though I feel like a tool for leaving my notebook on a southbound CalTrain Friday night. Happily, I got a call Monday morning from CalTrain’s Lost and Found telling me that the notebook had been turned in. The cash was missing, of course, but all the credit cards were there (useless now I’ve canceled them and ordered new ones) as well as my new driver’s license (yes!) and, of course, all my precious scribblings (whew). So all’s well that ends well, I guess, even if there were a few tense moments when the clerk at the Lost and Found at the San Jose station looked at me with puzzlement and said, “Did they call you?” I thought, wouldn’t that be perfect, to get me to drive all the way down to the station only to have the Lost and Found have lost my notebook again. But no, it turned out it was in a locked cabinet somewhere, and she found it and handed it over to me. And because the station is right next to the Poor House Bistro, I treated myself to a Cajun lunch (half a baked ham po’boy and a cup of gumbo) in semi-celebration. After all, if I were writing this as a story, that’s how I’d end it: with a lesson learned (symbolized by the cash lost) and a delicious Cajun meal.

So, the tool. I’ve been thinking for a couple years that it’d be nice to have all my references for a world together in one document without it being a huge Word doc I’d have to scroll through to find anything. Enter WikidPad, which is exactly what it sounds like: a Wiki for your local machine. It’s exactly what I needed for my novel. I can have listings of the cities on the planet, the people in the story, even the outlines of what happens in each part. All of them have their own page and are interlinked and indexed for easy access. It’s easy to edit, easy to cut and paste into, and the only real problem with it is that it’s so easy to use that you could happily spend hours just building out all the details of your world and never manage to write the actual story.

There are a number of local Wiki tools for Windows or Mac. This is the one I heard of first. I’ve installed and used it and it works great. If you search Google for “local wiki” and either “Windows” or “OSX,” you’ll find many alternatives, I’m sure.

Oh, and lastly, I promise, pictures of the book signing are up on my Flickr account. Enjoy!

Your Writing Notebook

You know how sometimes some little thing happens to you that prevents a larger accident? Like, “wow, good thing I forgot my jacket or I never would’ve run back into the house and noticed we’d left it unlocked!” or “if I hadn’t missed the turnoff for 101 and decided to take 280, I would’ve been caught in that traffic jam for hours” or “man, if Jennifer hadn’t dumped me, I’d never have hooked up with Angie”?

I am a big advocate of the little Moleskine notebook. I carry mine around everywhere and I even use its pocket to carry my driver’s license, cash, credit cards, so I’m sure I have it wherever I go.

One thing I might reconsider in the future is slipping my commuter train ticket inside it. Yesterday I’d sat down and took the notebook out of my jeans so I wouldn’t have to dig for it when the conductor came around to check tickets. I like to be prepared, see. Well, I got involved in doing some writing–you can see where this is going–and they never did come around to check tickets. My stop came up just as I was shutting down the machine, so I jammed it into the computer bag, backed out of the seat (that’s the part that gets me–I must have been looking down at it and didn’t notice it at all), and hopped off the train, happily leaving my poor writing notebook (and cash, and driver’s license, and credit cards) sitting on the train seat. And I didn’t glance back at the seat to see if anything was missing. I didn’t brush my pocket on the way down the stairs and realize that the notebook was missing. I didn’t get asked for my ticket on the way out of the train (as I had that morning), forcing me to go find it. That little thing…never happened.

I realized before the train had reached its destination that my notebook (and cash, and driver’s license, and credit cards) was missing. Called CalTrain and they said they would call the conductor on the train to see if he could find it, and if he did, or if someone turned it in, it’ll be at the Lost and Found in San Jose on Monday. Cancelled all my cards, and it wasn’t much cash, so really I’m just annoyed at myself for being scatterbrained, and at losing the writing I’d done in the notebook. And the new driver’s license which I JUST got this week.

On the plus side, it doesn’t LOOK like a wallet, and whoever finds it can have the cash as a stupid tax if they want. I’m more worried about the little things tucked into the pocket. My name and address and either e-mail or phone are in the book, so hopefully it’ll turn up. But there’s a lesson for you. Be careful with your ideas and don’t lose them.

(Honestly, I’m not sure there’s anything irreplaceable in the book. The thing about writing down ideas is it seems to fix them in my mind anyway. But it’s annoying. Plus I don’t want someone else out there to steal my crappy thoughts.)

Old Favorite in New Edition

The first book I clearly remember reading was Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle In Time.” I was staying with a cousin in Washington, D.C., on my own, which was pretty cool as I was only about six at the time, I think. I slid between a chair and coffee table and she said, “I bet you could slip through a wrinkle in time.” Puzzled, I asked what that meant. She got the book down and showed me, and I was enthralled. I remember that she’d written notes in the margins, obviously having studied it for a class at some point, and that some phrases were underlined (Mrs. Who’s pithy quote, “May the right prevail” being the only one I remember).

I loved “A Wrinkle In Time,” was delighted at “A Wind In The Door,” but “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” remains my favorite of the series. I may have read “Many Waters,” but I don’t recall it, and “An Acceptable Time” is a new one to me. All five of them are stories of the Murry family: Meg, Charles Wallace, their friend Calvin O’Keefe, Meg’s mother and father, the twins Sandy and Dennys. And the ones I’ve read are all wonderful.

Square Fish is reissuing the books in lovely new editions. If you are strangers to these books, please do yourself a favor and pick them up. For Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which; for Proginoskes and Mr. Jenkins; for Gaudior and Zilla; for Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin.

Review: The Amulet of Samarkand

The Amulet of Samarkand, by Jonathan Stroud
9/10, terrific contemporary magical fantasy adventure with great narrative voice

Imagine J.K. Rowling and Susanna Clarke (“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell“) collaborating on a fantasy, and you might come up with Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy. As rich and politically savvy as Clarke’s epic novel, with a healthy dose of Rowling’s whimsy (mostly provided by the voice of Bartimaeus the djinn), “The Amulet of Samarkand” sucks you in from page one and doesn’t let go.

Imagine you are a djinn, a powerful magical creature who lives in a mostly formless state in the Other Realm. It’s not a bad existence, except for those dang human magicians, who have figured out a way to yank you from your home into their realm and not only force you into a corporal form (though some, like Bartimaeus, can change their form), but also force you to do stuff for them. This could be stuff as simple as “spy on that guy” or as complicated as, say, “steal this powerful magical talisman from one of the most powerful and ambitious magicians in the realm.” Which is a particularly humiliating task when assigned by a twelve-year-old magician’s apprentice, with no small dose of ambition himself.

Bartimaeus has been around for a while, and his sarcasm and cynicism are among the primary joys of this book. He explains the magical world in often-hilarious footnotes as he goes along through his adventures (at one point, he describes a building as a “typical Victorian mansion, you know the type” with a footnote in which is contained the more verbose description with the disclaimer, “I was just trying to move the story along.”). The other magical creatures he meets in his travels are sometimes known to him, sometimes not, and if they are, chances are he’s done something in the past to irritate them, either in ancient Egypt or during the Crusades or in Prague, whose city walls he helped build.

We get hints of a larger political scene here–a previous war with the Czechs, a current war with Italy, and a Resistance that is fighting against the government of the magicians at home in Britain. But the bulk of this story concerns the twelve-year-old Nathaniel coming of age, and his servant (for the time being) Bartimaeus’s struggle to complete his tasks and win his freedom, annoying his master as much as possible in the interim. Their interplay is terrific, a more articulate Ushio and Tora, and the magical world is painted with lovely, authentic touches. Even though the story is set in the same pseudo-modern era as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (approximately early 80’s: cars, TV, but no cell phones or internet), the government of the magicians has a peculiarly Renaissance-fantasy feel that really appeals. Nonetheless, there is a sense of real danger, and people (and spirits) die along the way.

I’ve already started the second book. If you like magical fantasy, you should already be ordering the first.

Writing Dialogue

I’m sure I’ve posted on this subject before (Technorati disagrees), but as I’ve just finished a dialogue class, it’s not a bad time to revisit it. Plus, Lance Mannion has a gem of a post today that includes the following:

And this is what separates most of us from great journalists and other real writers—having a trained ear that hears what is really being said instead of what you expect people to say or remember what other people have said in similar situations, having a trained eye that sees everything and not what memory and expectation tell it it should be seeing, and then having the kind of trained memory that remembers and retains what the ear heard and the eye saw and does not overlay these fresh memories with old ones and with old prejudices and with wishful fantasies and opinions about what should have been said and what should have been seen and what should have happened.

And having a notebook handy.

This, or a similar phenomenon, is why I learned to read something twice if I wanted to read it critically; why you should see a movie twice if you want to talk about it structurally; why, as Lance says, you have to train yourself to listen to the words being said, and not what your brain translated them into in order to help you understand them. Memory is tricky, even if you’re not Leonard, which is why you and your SO can remember saying completely different things in the same conversation.

One of the exercises we did for our dialogue class was to eavesdrop on people and listen to how they talk. This is a great way to hear exactly what’s being said rather than what your brain turns it into, because you’re removing the context from their words, so your brain has no expectations to work with. I did find that it’s much harder to eavesdrop on people than I would have thought–easier while walking around a busy street on a weekend night than in a restaurant or cafe, if you want a tip. I got some great lines, though the idea is not to use those lines specifically, but to get a feel for how people who aren’t you put their sentences together.

Right now, we mostly get that feel from movies and TV, more so (I think) than from our co-workers and friends, unless they’re really unusual. Movies and TV represent an idealized form of dialogue, the way we wish we could talk, so that’s what we tend to emulate more. Lance goes on about this at some length, and the power of the writer to shape those words and thus the way people think. How many people do you think Tarantino or Kevin Smith have influenced with their snappy dialogue? Or, say, Tolkien (via Peter Jackson)?

The more you sound the way people want to sound, the more they will gravitate to your writing. So always keep your notebook handy, and when people are talking, listen.

Review: City of Bones

City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare
7.5/10, a rockin’ YA urban fantasy adventure with sparkling characters

“The Very Secret Diary of Aragorn, son of Arathorn.
Day One:
Ringwraiths killed: 4. V. good.
Met up with Hobbits. Walked forty miles. Skinned a squirrel and ate it.
Still not King.”

Those were the first words I read by Cassandra Clare, part of the Very Secret Diaries of the Lord of the Rings characters that launched her into internet legend. She was in the process of writing an extensive Harry Potter fanfic, but took a break to poke fun at Tolkien’s cast. If the VSDs exposed the Internet to her sharp wit, the Draco trilogy showed her keen grasp of characters and story. Finally, she put those skills to use in her own story and her own world, and the result is the fun, thrilling “City of Bones.”

The book starts with Clary Fray and her friend Simon at a club, where Clary witnesses what she thinks is a murder. The problem is, the body disappears as soon as it’s killed, and Simon can’t see any of the perpetrators, who disappear with smirking arrogance. Of course, things get rapidly more exciting and more complicated: the “murdered” boy was actually a demon, his killers demon-slayers. Their world collides more violently with Clary’s, in an adventure that gets progressively more complicated and layered as it goes along, accumulating glamorous warlocks, sultry vampires, and fierce werewolves, not to mention the demon-slayers themselves, called Shadowhunters.

Clare’s prose is fun to read, never stalling or slowing. She has a nice touch with description and imagery, but her real strength is in her characters. Clary, Simon, and the Shadowhunters Jace, Alec, and Isabelle are fully realized, vibrant characters who engage you from the first time they appear. Clary’s mother, her friend Luke, the Shadowhunters’ teacher Hodge, the warlock Magnus Bane, all spring off the page in supporting roles, and it is the characters that make this story really special.

The only real quibble I have with the book is that the prose is sometimes a little too hip. The characters occasionally sacrifice realism for the bon mot, their wit all as sharp as their blades and drawn more often. However, given that I never watched “Buffy,” the closest thing to a touchstone for this genre, that’s probably all in keeping with the standards. Also, I am (conservatively) twenty years older than the target audience. Perhaps twenty-five.

That said, though, the slightly forced hipness doesn’t detract from the realism of the characters. They are teenagers, saying stupid things sometimes and uncannily wise things at other times. The dynamic between Clary, Simon, and Jace is extremely well played. And the story itself is quite engaging, with strong echoes of Harry Potter (the main villain is presumed to have been dead for some fifteen years, was at school with many of the people Clary meets, and you can feel the shadow of Hogwarts looming over Clare’s vague descriptions of the early school). This isn’t to say that the world or story feel derivative; I suspect it’s more an artifact of my knowing Clare’s appreciation of the Harry Potter series and being more apt to notice similarities. The trappings of her world are nicely detailed (the vampire hotel, the werewolf packs, the warlock’s party) and make for fun reading.

Overall, I had a great time reading this book. I have no qualms recommending it to anyone who enjoys “Buffy,” Harry Potter, or Holly Black, Clare’s friend and fellow author.

How It Feels

It occurs to me that in the slightly giddy but overall fairly dry recap of the signing, I didn’t really capture how enormously weird it was to be standing in a real bookstore in front of a bunch of people reading lines I’d written. Yes, of course I’ve had dreams like that, only usually I’m better dressed, the audience is bigger, and the lines are better. Also I can consistently pronounce “either.” But based on my reactions last night, I think that my dreams should start smaller. Even this modest audience of twenty people–most of whom knew me–was slightly intimidating. Sitting there, taking me seriously… interested in my book. (And the people, once again, were great.) I thought I’d be prepared for this, since I’d done a preview reading from the text at a convention last fall, but I was nervous, didn’t set up the chapter as well as I could’ve, and tried, in some misguided Iron Man way, to make it all the way through without taking a single drink of water (I failed–my voice literally gave out–but I did get to the last page before I had to grope back behind me for the water bottle).

The side effect this has is one of swinging the pendulum back to me believing in the book. While I was reading, I was wincing inwardly and thinking I should’ve taken another six months to tighten up the prose, improve the descriptions, rehash the dialogue (at one point I did redact the prose on the fly, taking out one word so it wouldn’t sound repetitive). But seeing so many people interested in it, and talking to a few who’d read and enjoyed it, make me see the positive qualities of the book again, and remember one of my core tenets, which is that people won’t remember that ugly sentence on page 24. They will remember the message of the book if it’s effectively conveyed, and I think that I did that.

That doesn’t change the acute awareness of all the minor glitches in the prose that stand out in sharp relief during a reading. All that does is cement my resolve to edit more firmly this next manuscript, so that next time I stand up to read, I can focus on remembering to say either “ay-ther” or “ee-ther” throughout.