Thursday, May 21, 2015

Dragons of Autumn Twilight Re-Read: Chapters 13-18: Cover All, Nightmare Fuel and Action Inspiration

I've been remiss and missed some of my posts, but I've caught up to the folks over at Tor.com and I thought I'd share my thought.

Chapters 13 & 14
Chapter Thirteen seems heavy on the “we rolled this section on the random encounters chart” gamesplaysposition. I remember reading something (an interview or something like that) about the scene with Tas and Flint getting drunk on the log being directly lifted from them playtesting the modules. If I weren’t so lazy, I’d link. We’re also sort of reaching the “Cover All” of Fantasy Trope Bingo here: the mysterious dead swamp. I’ll leave aside my own problems with the ignorance of our “well-traveled adventurers” for the sake of story telling for now, but now that I’m a cynical fortysomething and not a bright eyed middle schooler it’s getting harder to do.

The thing this section is making me realize though is how much of a first book this is and reminds me, structurally and tonally, a lot of Star Wars (Episode IV). It’s setting pieces and doing the hero’s journey thing but to a group as opposed to a single person. It’s hitting the tropes perfectly. There’s a character for everyone to latch on to from every group of people, so it makes sense that it was so popular with my age set.

Chapters 15 & 16
Finally, a freaking dragon. Took us long enough. I always have problems with dragons as the big bads but think this is one of the ways the D&D tie in really works in their favor. To most of us, when we hear dragon we think of fire breathing lizards, so the first dragon we meet can not only cast spells but spit some kind of acid as well. Because 100 foot long flying lizards aren't terrifying enough?

As I remember it, the Riverwind scene was pretty terrifying the first time through and it holds up really well. It's horrifying but tastefully done, not gratuitous but graphic enough for us to feel the horror of what happened. You can feels the uncertainty heroes minds as to what to do next. It's really some of the strongest of writing so far in the book.

Strangely enough, the writing is starting to feel like it's coming into it's own and it's starting to work as a story. There's a part that makes it almost feel like a cheap out with how easy this problem is solved, but in the context of the story, it actually works...a lot. It would be easy to complain that the Companions forget about Goldmoon and the staff but a few things are in play: healing isn't a "thing" in this D&D world. There are no clerics and magic items don't have healing powers, so for the most part, our heroes wouldn't even think of that in the moment. A moment when they are still feeling the deep fear and terror of dragonfear. It's understandable that they wouldn't be thinking about that at that moment.

It finally feels like we're getting somewhere and Xak Tsaroth is one of the great fantasy cities!

Chapter 17 & 18
The strength of these books are the actions scenes. While they are occasionally disorganized and almost nonsensical due to the authors' strict adherence to game to text translation, they are still really well done. Not over the top or heavy handed, they work really well. The pages turned fast. I talk about the action scenes because chapter 18 has maybe my favorite action scene in fantasy ever: the fight in the pots. It's just brilliant. Confusing, chaotic, fighting in a tight place. The pacing is brilliant and it reminded me in an instant of the elevator scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The writing is tight and on point throughout and it only ramps up the danger the Companions are in.

I've tried (to varying degrees of success I hope) to replicate many times. In one of my trunk novels I have an entire chapter that is called "Up The Scaffold" that is one character's fight up a scaffolding the side of a building. I've done it in the contemporary story I just finished. It's hard to do and do well.

The escape down the wrecked tube is harrowing and involves more of the slime covered walls of the city, which is a great detail that isn't actually grating despite it's repetitiveness. Actually, a lot of the details about Xak Tsaroth are great. The city is a nightmare, having fallen off a cliff into a cavern in the earth. It such a hard thing to visualize for me but it all works. Except when they get to the bottom of the pipe, which I will talk about next time.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Having A Hamlet Complex

As I continue on my "epic" 2015, my thoughts wander to Hamlet. Yup, the Danish prince of one of Big Willy Shakes most epic plays is in my thoughts as we are on the precipice of summer. Usually, this time of year, I imagine some epic writing plan for the coming months and share it here on the blog. Then in August, as summer reaches it's twilight and I am faced with the impending doom of the coming school year, I lament how miserably I failed at achieving my goals. So, here we are, the first real warm day of the year and as I'm thinking what's next for me, I can't help but feel like Hamlet.

Now, let me explain before you go running off thinking I'm suicidal or have a thing for my mom or something. I'm focusing more on the idea that Hamlet is the "prince that can't make up his mind." It's my favorite angle, especially as a high school teacher trying to get reluctant Shakespeare readers engaged in a text. Presenting Hamlet as a kid that's so overwhelmed by everything happening to him that he can't rightly decide what his next move is going to be. One of the things that kept me reading The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan was my feeling that Rand was really Hamlet, unable to decide what to do next because everything was so overwhelming. I love when books do that and it's something I try to emulate in my writing. Which is why I am evoking the Danish prince, I am in a place where I can't decide what to do next. 

I found a great groove the last six weeks or so on THE SEVEN LABORS OF NICK JABLONSKY, a contemporary YA that I've been working on and off for a few years. A groove that came to a grinding halt when I came to the last section of the book, no more than 10,000 words, and realized I couldn't stick the landing. This put me into a panic that I cannot express. I froze, not sure what to do next with it. The panic became worse when something that was vexing me since the end of Christmas Break, my computer crapped the bed and took everything with it.

PSA for all of my blog readers: BACK UP YOUR DATA. My calm was irrevocably damaged when the poor IT guy came in to tell me all the data on the hard drive was lost and with it the the latest draft of SPRING'S TEMPEST, which just needed a polish draft, and a working draft of book three. It sucks and threw me into a tail spin. A tail spin I am struggling with right now. Like Hamlet, I can't make up my mind what I'm going to do.

I did manage to find a partial (about 77k out of 136k) draft of the new SPRING on a thumb drive and big chunks of it is just revised and rewritten from an older draft of SPRING, so it's not as catastrophic as I thought it might be, but it's still daunting and I'm trying to get my legs under me. I've reread/revised what I have and it's better than I remember (5 months away from it helps) and I figure I can recover, but the working draft of book 3 (SUMMER something...it's getting pitched as STRIFE but I'm leaning towards something else). In the words of the Danish prince, "That it should come to this" is debilitating and I'm unable to decide what to do.

On top of that, another project that I'm struggling sticking the landing for is SISTERS, which I decided needed to be more epic and is going through a face lift of sorts. It's not going to be called the YOUNG WEAPONMASTERS anymore, but the more epically named RETURN OF THE FALSE LORDS. That looms too and I want to put the end to SISTERS and plot out the other books in the series.

As I see it, I've got to make a run at this. I'm pretty convinced my agent is tired of me talking about the same two projects (SEASONS and SISTERS) so much that I want to get new words (LABORS) to him to see if we can do something with it. Plus I almost feel like I'm in a rut because I'm twirling around these few projects. As work lessens a little in the classroom, can I up the volume of writing work I do. Can I hit Rachel Aaron-esque From 2k to 10k level of work? As Hamlet says, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." Can I complete all of these things in the next 120 days? I've challenged myself like this before and failed miserably...should that deter me? Of course not.

If I complete all the things in my ledger, it's about 270k. If you look at in terms of 120 days, that's only about 2k a day. I need a bigger pace than that. I want to start something new (besides SUMMER)...that 90s ski epic looms and I'm pretty sure the timeline I made with Aaron Starmer to complete said project is close to expiring. I have a notebook full of ideas I can work on as well and, for some reasons, a few of the scifi projects are calling me: A TOURNAMENT OF PRINCES ("Taming of the Shrew meets Firefly") and THE POINT GUARD AND SPACE PRINCESS ("Attack the Block meets "Love and Basketball"). Can I get more than 270k done? Can I finish off the SEASONS trilogy then move on to other projects? Is it worth the trouble? I don't know the answers for sure, but as Hamlet said, "This above all: to thine own self be true."

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Dragons of Autumn Twilight Re-Read: Chapters 11 & 12: The Last Homely House...or Something Like That

So the Fellowship...wait, I mean the companions...gets to rest and recover at Rivendell...wait, I mean the forested glade of Elrond...wait, I mean the Last Unicorn...wait, I mean the Forestmaster, who casts some very un-D&D like magic and makes some pretty heavy handed foreshadowing about our knight in sour armor. 

This chapter is loaded with some great foreshadowing (am I cheating again by talking about stuff I know is going to happen?) of events in later books, especially involving Sturm. The interesting thing that happens is that Goldmoon, for all her royalty and being the one with the Blue Crystal Staff is barely paid attention to by the Forestmaster. Maybe this is where destiny is being emphasized: Tanis and Raistlin are the more "important" companions. The choice to go to Xak Tsaroth (one of the great city names in the history of fantasy) is one that bothers me a little. I mean wouldn't they know about Xak Tsaroth...again, it reeks of inexperience. We're led to believe that these characters are experienced, yet they don't seem to know a lot. 

I realized something about Flint while reading this chapter. I can't say if it was because of something specific I read or just a random thought. All he's done is grumble and grouse. The Companions don't seem to think much of him as a fighter and when factoring his age, it's pretty much implied that he's not much of an experienced fighter. He's just a travelling salesman that had to fight a little here and there to pay the bills or protect his goods. That's how the Companions came into his company. It's a pretty interesting angle when you think about it.

I enjoyed when they all blurted out what they thought they should do next,it revealed each of the characters motivations and desires in a very compact, economic piece of narrative. It actually shows some of the talent that we all seem to remember that may not have actually been there at first. But then the group dynamic comes to the fore and we see why Tanis and Raist are the most important. They are Picard and Riker. Kirk and Spock. Tanis is the respected warrior and leader and Raistlin is the XO not afraid to say what Tanis might not want to hear. They need to be in Xak Tsaroth at an appointed time and as much as Tanis wants to go see the girl he was going to spurn but is now having second thoughts about because his first choice left him twisting in the wind, which is kind of a dick move when you think about it. And then they jump the "walking, always walking" feeling in so many epic fantasies: they hitch a ride with flying horses. I refuse to call them pegasi. I have to wonder how much of an influence the original Clash of the Titans had on this part considering it would have been on an almost constant loop on HBO at the time they were writing this. 


The remnants of Que-Shu is the strongest writing so far in the story. It captures the horror of what happened and the Companions reaction to it as well as anything I've read. Granted someone like Martin would've taken seven different POV characters through the village at different times, all just missing one another by a few moments time. But the scenes are gutwrenching and revealing. The give some depth to the characters that wasn't there before and confront the readers with a real sense of dread...holy cow, is this the embryonic stages of grimdark before our eyes. My God, it's full of dark. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Epic Light Or Dark

This has been a downright epic week to be a geek. Seriously. For those of you living under a rock, yesterday the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens dropped and pretty much broke the Internet. (Take that Kimye!) Just in case you missed it:




Pretty epic...and you know what else? Fun. Pulse pounding excitement and joy. That's something I think is missing in today's epics. 

We live in a time when grimdark is king. When people want to make darker and grittier versions of everything. The same week that this trailer dropped, the premier of season 5 of Game of Thrones aired on HBO. (F**k you, Bit Torrent assholes...but that's another blog entry.) And the show is as dark as ever, with the books going even darker. As has been my motif this year with my blogging, it got me thinking about epic. But then another trailer dropped (well, not officially, but you get my meaning) later in the day, the first teaser trailer for Batman vs. Superman. In case you missed that one: 




Darkness. Dread. Heavy handed God/Jesus metaphors. Heavy stuff. For a movie about a guy in blue tights and a guy that dresses up as a Bat. I'm being snarky on purpose a little bit. The first thing I wanted to know about BvsS was where was the fun? Adventure? Excitement? (I know, I know...a Jedi craves not these things.) Actually the stark differences between the two trailers (and one would think the two movies) made me think of this:


 (Will Arnett is officially my "second" Batman, but that's for another blog post.)

So, what's my point here.  I stated earlier that I think one of the things that's missing in today's epics is the fun. There's no awe. No sense of joy or excitement. Our need to make everything "dark" to suit our cynical, jaded (spoiled, entitled) world view is taking the joy out of these things. I think there's a prevalent thought that without that darkness, there is no sense of stakes. But that's just not the case. The original Star Wars trilogy did it and learned to balance the light and dark. I mean Empire is by far the best, but still loaded with tons of "thrilling heroics." Jedi takes a beating for the Ewoks, but as was recently discussed by a few people (Saladin Ahmed among them) on the Internet it has some of the most thrilling moments in the trilogy: the barge rescue, the space battle and the Luke/Vader duel are all great. Fun. Pulse pounding. We need more fun in epic stories. But to be fair, Jedi  was 33 years ago. It was a different time.

You want a modern example? I'll give you two: Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie. I often joke that GOTG is my "thesis" when it comes to my argument that epic stories can be fun. (Bonus points if you can name the movie that comes from.) Watch those movies and tell me that they aren't fun and epic.

Well, back to my epic.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dragons of Autumn Twilight Re-Read: Chapters 9 & 10: Walking, No Dead

While Chapter 9 really puts us in Sturm's mind (I'll get to that in a minute) and his sense of nostalgia, my own nostalgia wanes at this section. The infodumping, which may be a step up from gamemechanicsposition from the first eight chapters, completely slows the narrative down. People complain about all the walking in Tolkien, but this is kind of boring. I really feel like a good editor would have cut a lot of this out, especially Tas's recap. Then when we finally get to Darken Wood, it's a made let down. No zombies (that may be a modern issue), no liches, not even one of the creepy guys featured on the first page of the chapter. Instead we essentially get the green scrubbing bubble ghosts from The Return of the King. I mean that whole section sounds like Peter Jackson boosted it from this scene. Pete, if that is true, of all the things you're going to take from DL? Seriously?

I have other issues with Darken Wood. Isn't this the Companions (I know they aren't calling them that yet, but for simplicity I'm using it) home territory and they've never checked out Darken Wood? You mean that's not a dungeon delve waiting to happen for young adventurers, especially considering not far away on the Gods' Peak Mountain people go on picnics. It just adds to the weakness of these chapters and kind of exposes the amateurness of Weis and Hickman. (And the TSR editorial staff.)

The story really vacillates between Sturm and Tanis with the other characters playing second fiddle, even Raistlin who is the only one that communicate with the dead that surround them. Sturm still obsessed with being a hero like Huma even though he wasn't even a knight or a squire (and Sturm is 30 at this point, old for a human). It's this delusion that makes him so much more appealing to me now. He's such a damaged man, more so than Raistlin who he seems to despise. Makes me think that comes from the fact that Raistlin has accomplished all he set out to do and Sturm is an utter failure dressed in his daddy's old suit. That could be kind of soul crushing for him.

We also get a little insight into Tanis: the twisting ring and the inner thoughts about Kitiara. He's a lover boy torn between the love of two women. A little wish-fulfill-y (just a smidge) here in that one is an elven princess and the other is a tomboy warrior. Okay, I'm cheating a little bit since that isn't exactly revealed, but so what? We know that Tanis has settled on Kitiara. We also get a nice character moment between Tanis and Flint. It's nice and well done, playing on the longevity of the two races, dwarf and half-elf, and how they see the world. Tanis is still a young man in Flint's eyes and to the rest of the companions for different reasons, and it is never clearer than it is here.

Centaurs. Meh. JK Rowling did them better later with better mysteriousness without using ye Olde English. But who is our mysterious benefactor that has summoned them.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Dragons of Autumn Twilight Re-Read: Chapters 7 & 8: 80s Movies Rock!

So, Tor.com stole my idea. They are doing a Dragonlance Chronicles re-read. Okay, maybe stole is a strong word, but it is what it is. I decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, so I've been posting edited versions of what I'd posted for the early posts from a few years back and decided I'm going to cross post my thoughts here. In this part, for Chapters 7 & 8, I'm going to wax poetic about how the writers seem to be borrowing heavily from 80s action movies. 

First, a general observation I made. This book has all the feels of an 80s action movie. (Stay with me for the analogy,) So far, our story generally follows two80s action movies plot tropes: the getting the band back together and the neighborhood has really gone to crap. It's pretty interesting that this follows those tropes pretty close which makes sense as those types of movies were the most prevasive of entertainment forms of the time. The old band gets back together after a period of time away from one another doing what they do (looking for proof of the real gods) and come back mostly empty handed with a stranger in the midst that sets off the plot of the story proper that happens to be related to why the band broke up in the first place. And the old neighborhood isn't the way they had left it. It's rife with strange clerics and problems with the decidedly crooked and corrupt local authorities. (Another trope from most 80s action movies!) It's kind of fun looking back at it and how much fun the authors are obviously having with playing with these tropes. And chapter 7 starts off with another trope from action movies: the damsel tells her story as they deal with the DMs random encounter of the chapter: tangleshoot vines.

They subvert it a little bit in that she's not a romantic interest for any of our leads but there is little for her to do as a character other than what is convenient for the plot at this point. Early on, this is much more a problem for me now than it was when the books first came out. Her story is moving, honest and really well done as far as flashbacks go. 

They play with another trope from 80s action films (actually most action films): the comic relief. Tas is actually kind of pitch perfect in this chapter as a perfect counter to the intensity of the fighting that is going on. In the midst of this fear and terror at what they are witnessing as a group, strange creatures that a group of relatively seasoned adventurers (I'm loathe to use that word) have never experienced before, and indvidually: Riverwind's obvious PTSD, Tanis's attempts to micromanage, Flint's age and Sturm losing his precious sword. The only ones keeping it together are the Twins and Tas. The literary slapstick of the scene between Tas and Flint during the fight is one of the best examples of slapstick in text I've seen. It reads the way a Three Stooges fight would appear on the page. On the other hand, I'm already annoyed with Flint's helm, dude is a dwarven warrior and a craftsman and can't find helm that fits. I don't remember if there was something mentioned prior as to why the damn thing doesn't fit, but it's particularly annoying already.

The Twins hold their own, but as times there's a little too much gamemechanicsposition going on with them (I'm laying claim to that phrase, but feel free to use it!) while Sturm continues to be dumb and kind of douchy. Scoffing at the idea of hiding in a ditch but has no problem stabbing an enemy in the back, he get taken out of the fight early. 

The interesting thing about this fight is that while the Companions deal with the enemy in pretty good order (these mooks are next level up mooks but mooks nonetheless), they kind of get their asses handed to them and are forced to retreat, another popular 80s action movie trope. What comes next? A training montage?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

One of the motifs on my blog this year is my desire for 2015 to be the year of the epic. I am approaching my writing this year with the idea that I need to write more epic and, with that in mind, I am approaching my reading in a similar manner. I was lucky enough to score an ARC of the highly anticipated The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu from the new Saga Press. I was thrilled. I was really looking forward to this book and, to be honest, Saga is exactly the kind of imprint I would love to be a part of as a writer, so this was a no-brainer. I can say this, GRACE exceeded all of my expectations for reasons I did not expect it to enjoy it.

Imagine shoving all of these ingredients into a blender: a trickster, the Rock, giant falcons, whales that humans can ride, bathroom/raunchy humor, big battles between big armies, political scheming and plotting, airships, battle kites, a decadent empire, meddling gods, thrilling adventure, quiet moments between couples and a cast of thousands, how awesome a smoothie would that be? Well, that's kind of what we're looking at with The Grace of Kings.

I love big, sweeping epic stories, but the places that this book really, really works is in the quiet character moments that most authors of this type of book sort of gloss over or don't do as well as a writer like Liu does. It shows Liu's deftness as a writer that he's able to perfectly blend this into a narrative the scope of this story and make it more memorable than some of the bigger moments of the story. And for this alone, the novel is exceptional. But Liu blends a bunch of different genres into it and you all know how I feel about genre mash-ups.

The times between the quiet character moments are occupied by passages that instead of using a close, intimate 3rd person use a more epic voice (I believe this was the way Liu defined it in an interview I listened to on the Coode Street Podcast) and basically tells the story of two men: cunning trickster Kuni and super human fallen noble Mata as they fight for control of the Islands of Dara first as rebels then as rulers. The narrative swirls around them but tells the story through the eyes of a cast that would make George RR Martin shiver, from lowly peasants to noble (and not so noble) kings. But Liu blends these together deftly, using the epic voice to condense the tales into manageable bites and gives even the sidest of side characters of something to do and an important role to play in the larger narrative. What another writer, Martin among them, would take dozens and dozens and dozens of pages to tell, Liu does sometimes in a page or two, sometimes even a paragraph. Normally, this would be frustrating to me but Liu's storytelling works as long as you think of these parts of the story the same you would if you were reading something like "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" or "The Song of Roland."


His worldbuilding is stellar. While Liu uses the expression "silkpunk" to describe the setting, it's far more complicated than just slapping the "punk" label on it to give a feel for the world (I would encourage you to listen to the Coode Street Podcast, because I'm sort of riffing off things that were said during that interview). The world feels wholly unique and, in a lot of ways, made me think more of The Four Kingdoms of Avatar than Westeros or Randland with just the right twists and uniqueness that it stands clearly on its own with the great created worlds out there.

This book seriously moved me. Makes me want to write. I often associate books I'm reading with what is going on around me at the time. The last few months, like Dara, my life as been tumultuous and GRACE has been there to help me escape. While I spent two hours at the IRS dealing with a case of stolen identity, the book kept me calm. During a second visit to the IRS and a double crown (yes, I scheduled at dental procedure and a visit to the IRS on the same day!), it did the same. The IRS part is hilarious because tax codes are a huge part of the story...in a very interesting way. While my daughter was in surgery on her ear, I stayed distracted jumping the islands of Dara with these brilliant characters.

I'm going to say now that this is easily going to make the end of the year top 5. Sharpie it.