On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing bt Stephen King

The subtitle of this book is probably the best description for it. This is a memoir of the craft of writing and it’s actually quite wonderful and full of some of the most practical advice. It’s also advice that is really hard to follow.

Stephen King starts by sharing a few snapshots of his life growing up and publishing his first stories and essays and novel. These are things that he thinks influenced him as a writer, from working in a laundry with a guy who had hooks for hands to selling his own stories to kids at school because they were too gory to publish in the school paper. Some of them are amusing and some of them are poignant, all of them are interesting because Stephen King is a story-teller — there’s a reason that he sells as well as he does.

The advice section is more opinionated than most authors are willing to be. Stephen King actually calls out some authors by name when criticizing certain styles, which most authors will not do publicly for obvious reasons. Most useful to me is his examples of how to cut unnecessary information and how to avoid the use of adverbs.

George R. R. Martin has said that writers are either architects or gardeners. Most authors are more one of those than the other. Architects make an outline and they stick to it. Gardeners make up a bunch of characters and a situation to put them in and see what happens — they don’t know how long the story will be until it ends. Stephen King is a gardener and can’t imagine any other way of telling a story — which is fine for him. I am the opposite and found most of his advice on character and plot useless as it consisted of make up a real seeming person and start writing. Making good characters is a useful lesson, just starting writing gets me nowhere. I have to know where I’m heading.

For writers this is a good book with great advice and entertaining examples and stories to back up the advice. It’s also an honest account of a popular writer’s life.

Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy

Today I learned about the death of Leonard Nimoy.

To many people Nimoy is the icon behind Spock, perhaps the most revered character in all of the vast array of Star Trek cannon. With that seemingly simple role, a pointy-eared alien on an unlikely spaceship, he created something epic and grand. With only a few short episodes he not only inhabited the character of Spock but created the mannerisms of an entire race that dozens of actors would attempt to imitate.

If Nimoy had done only that it would be enough. He had a complicated relationship with Spock and his fans over the years, writing a book in 1975 titled “I am not Spock.” Twenty years later he came to terms with his own fame and wrote a followup, “I am Spock.” By the end of his life he had completely embraced the contribution that his character made to so many growing and learning people and even took to signing messages with LLAP (Live Long and Prosper).

Nimoy with ShatnerI always admired the character of Spock. As a boy I was inspired by his somber attitude — being introverted and uncomfortable with people I related to his unemotional and logical attitude. He was the outcast on the show and he was awesome. I grew up wanting to be Spock. It was Spock’s lack of emotion that I tried to model as a teenager. It was Spock’s reliance on science and logic that fueled my desire to pursue science and engineering as a career.

Bus that’s not all.

Nimoy was an arNimoytist. He wrote and directed more than one of the Star Trek films — most notably “The Voyage Home,” probably the funniest and most light-hearted Star Trek. He sang, and, though it was better than Shatner’s spoken-song style of turning pop music into poetry night readings, it never quite took off. He was also a poet, crafting poems nearly up until the day he died.

A few days before his death he left the world with the lines: “A life is a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.”

And finally he was a photographer and created some stunning and baffling artistic photography that will probably never be as famous as his most well-known character.

Nimoy was a man who lived in the world, and changed the world. He brought art and beauty and light to a lot of places. He was, in a word, extraordinary with all the extra that can be applied.

My world is darker now.

Live Long and Prosper.I Have Been and Always Shall Be Your Friend

Teckla by Steven Brust

Teckla by Steven BrustTeckla starts out by introducing marital issues between Vlad and his wife Cawti. She’s joined a group of revolutionaries and he’s following her around being overprotective and she gets mad and they spend the rest of the book fighting about it. The tension of the relationship troubles was real and at least added some conflict to the story. It still just doesn’t seem to amount to much.

My first encounter with Brust was a free Firefly novel that he wrote that I though captured the character’s voices well and was a fun story. I find his Vlad Taltos books confusing and boring. Vlad tries to make jokes but just isn’t funny. Terrible things happen that elicit no emotional response — torture, murder, assassination attempts, who cares. Even social upheaval is pretty irrelevant and doesn’t mean much.

I understand that Brust has a number of fans and Vlad Taltos — his main character — has just as many. What I don’t understand is why.

Teckla was the most interesting of the three books I’ve read but it was still emotionless, boring and confusing. Vlad will fight about Cawti joining a revolution because he’s worried about her and he will stalk her through the streets and spy on her but when questions of his motives come up he starts talking about revenge against somebody who is encroaching on his territory. The ‘bad guy’ captures him and tortures him at one point and Vlad spends the rest of the book wandering around and getting nothing much done while telling himself he’s getting revenge by keeping his wife safe, or something.

Then he has a revelation about his grandfather who shows up and fixes everything simply by saying hello to a few people.

This is definitely slow burn fantasy. In fact it’s also small stakes fantasy which makes it a little harder to get into. Slow burn is great when that burn builds into a raging fury. When it builds into what amounts to an Independence Day sparkler then I wonder why I waited so long.

What Brust is trying to do here is hard. I understand that. He’s trying to tell an emotional domestic story in a fantasy backdrop that involves assassinations and mental trauma while using a humorous cynical voice and a fair amount of social commentary on not only modern times but much of the early twentieth century mob mentality. That’s a hefty weight to shoulder in one work and if it worked it would be amazing. If he were able to pull off half of those things, or even one of them the book would at least be worthy of either deeper discussion or a mild chuckle.

Everything falls flat. Vlad is a humorless narrator and a boring person to be stuck with. The characters around him are even less interesting than he is. Character motivations are straddling the line between ‘wouldn’t this be funny’ and straight out stereotypes and ends up somewhere closer to ‘I need this for the plot.’ The plot is incomprehensible and convoluted so much that it’s not clear what’s going on (Vlad breaks into a house to spy on his wife and ends up having a chapter long conversation with a ghost who doesn’t know why he’s there — the ghost is never seen again). The social commentary isn’t doing anything other than having some events similar to real-world things happening around the time the book was written.

Then there is the writing. I’m not expecting Shakespeare or Tolkien. I just want to read a book without having to flinch at unfortunate word choices or reread passages because they make no sense. Brust seems to write with a clunky style that feels choppy and confused, like Brust doesn’t quite know what he’s trying to say so by using short sentences he can avoid the need to actually make sense.

As you can probably guess, I would not recommend this book to anybody.

Serenity: Leaves on the Wind by Zack Whedon and Georges Jeanty

Serenity- Leaves on the Wind by Zack WhedonThis is the first story published that takes place after the movie. We get to see some of the repercussion of those events and how the human race is dealing with the information that Malcolm Reynolds and his crew released to the ‘Verse.

More importantly we get to see how the crew is dealing with the loss and trauma that they survived.

I have mixed feelings about this book.

On one hand, I always want to know what else is going on with this crew. Zack Whedon captures their voices spectacularly — not an easy thing as they have a very peculiar way of speaking — and sets them on a course that fits very well into the universe established in the show. This is a brilliant examination of dealing with loss and trauma and trying to remain hidden while needing things to get better.

On the other hand I’m of the opinion that Firefly is better because it is so sparse. The show was cancelled after only half of one season. A couple of years later they made a movie. The show, exempting a couple episodes, is great. The movie is one of the most powerfully written movies in many decades. Every time more material is created it adds the opportunity for that material to not be good. Most television shows gain a following then run until they get so stupid that people quit watching. Firefly has the unusual ability to always be good. There is no more for writers or producers or directors to mess up. They got it write in the beginning and then it ended.

So while this book would have fit into the show pretty well and does pick up the story form the end of the movie well it is just an episode. It leaves little resolved and a lot open and fills me with trepidation. If there is going to be more I want it to be great, not just good.

I’m probably in the minority when I say, I would rather have no more Firefly/ Serenity than take the chance that it might not be worth it.

This book seems to me to be the first of a batch of books that could lead down paths that will be unfortunate. However, sometimes an ill-advised sequel turns out to be even better than the first.

Only time will tell.

Fans of Firefly have probably already read this, or intend to. It won’t make much sense if you haven’t seen the movie at least.

The Third Lynx by Timothy Zahn

The Thid Lynx by Timothy ZahnThe Third Lynx is actually the second book in Zahn’s Quadrail series. It took me a long time to get around to reading this book because I didn’t really care for the first one. Night Train to Rigel had an interesting premise but kind of spent too much time explaining things to be really exciting.

The Third Lynx has stepped it up a notch, mostly because the setup has been done already and now we can get to the fun stuff. The fun stuff is what Zahn does best: interesting aliens used in surprising and fascinating ways.

If Brandon Sanderson is famous for his surprising use of magic systems then Zahn does the same things with aliens and technology. It’s always fun to see him at work raising the stakes.

The Third Lynx, much like the first book, is kind of a mashup of James Bond and Raymond Chandler noir mysteries but with mind controlling aliens and interstellar trains. There are mysteries layered on top of mysteries and the story folds up in a series of satisfying twists.

When Zahn gets it right I can’t put his book down until it’s done. When he gets it wrong, well, at least I’m along for the ride because it’ll be fun. The Third Lynx is somewhere in the middle.

My biggest hangup, though is in the main character, which is a problem in a first-person narrative because he’s also the only point of view character. Frank Compton is sort of like Sherlock Holmes in his deductive reasoning skills and a lot like Jack Reacher in his shear luck of guessing right with almost nothing to go on. At first he seems impressive but then it starts to feel too easy. He’s always one step ahead of everybody else — but without the personality ticks that make Sherlock interesting (or the Watson to give us some reason to like him). He also is accompanied by Bayta, who is sort of his partner in his job only he is constantly grabbing her arm every time they start walking. I suspect Zahn meant something else but the picture I always have is Compton dragging her behind him while holding on just above her elbow like an angry parent and a rebellious teenager. It sort of ruined the image of friendship they were supposed to have.

The book is fun and Zahn is in form showing us aliens and technology and then building a climax that could only work with that particular combination. There is better Zahn out there but even with this you won’t be bored.

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

Pawn of Prophecy by David EddingsI first read David Eddings as a teenager when I came across the books in the library and the covers completely captured my imagination. I still think these are some of the best covers of any fantasy book. There’s something about the map and bear shadow and the woman who looks like she’s part of the Addam’s family… It just makes me want to read it. Even now, twenty years later I love to just look at that cover and think about what might be inside.

I read these books multiple times as a teenager and never picked up on many of the more troubling aspects of these books. Once I was old enough to understand what people complain about I avoided reading them in the hope that they would remain good in my mind.

Jo Walton calls it the suck fairy — when a book you used to love is suddenly not good any more. It’s because we are different people from one year to the next and what we love as one person we will hate as another. (As example, Terry Brooks, who I loved at least as much as Eddings when I was younger and who I find completely unreadable now.)

David Eddings has problems. His male and female relations are juvenile at best and he seems to be the president of the stereotypes club. Every nation in his world has a national obsession and there are no deviants. There is a country of spies, a country of sailors, a country of nomadic horsemen, a country of shrewd businessmen, a country of drug addicts, etc. There are no dark skinned people of any kind which is probably good because they would have ended up with some very unfortunate stereotypes that would have really made the books uncomfortable.

I knew all these things from memory and so avoided the books for the longest time, wanting to preserve them as good books. Well I finally gave in to those wonderful covers and discovered something that I never knew about Eddings. Eddings was a genius. This is not a serious fantasy that follows all the tropes, though it feels like one at times.

This is a parody of all the fantasy but not just of all the fantasy that came before it, because really before Eddings there was basically Tolkien, Brooks and Donaldson with some Dragonlance books thrown in. There wasn’t much to parody in other words. Eddings parodied all the fantasy that came after him by writing something that sounded serious at the time but is obviously a comedy playing with all the silliness that was fantasy for the next decade after.

This is obviously just a theory but this book becomes something new when you see it that way and suddenly the stereotypes are hilarious and the dialogue is almost self referential and almost always amusing.

If I’m wrong, then at least Eddings has written a book that holds up, thirty years later because it has become, however unintentionally, satire of so much fantasy from the late eighties and early nineties.

It is better than I expected if only because of his wonderful dialogue. People talk to each other so smoothly and with such great emotion that I was surprised that there was very little description of facial expression. Just lines of dialogue, frequently without even a tag to say who spoke, because you don’t need it. Eddings is a master of dialogue that is at once revelatory, smooth, natural and funny and that alone makes this book worth reading again.

It’s not a life-changing book and it obviously has problems that I had to come to terms with but I enjoyed it and am much relieved to know that I still like this book after all these years.

Schlock Mercenary: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse by Howard Tayler

Schlock Mercenary: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse by Howard TaylerThe title of this book comes from what sounds like a throwaway line in one of the better jokes in this comic.

LOTA

I have to admit that I may be biased about this book. You see this is where I started reading the comic. Somewhere in here. I remember the ending and some of the parts in between, but I don’t remember all of it.

Now, having read it from the beginning I think this is the best of Tayler’s work so far — that I’ve read in print. His jokes are always on point, sometimes making me laugh out loud and sometimes only amusing but always funny. The artwork continues to improve and the story is top notch with a tight plot and focused story that feels like it might belong in one of the finest science fiction novels.

What makes this book shine is the characters. I have always liked the main crew, they seem to be pretty easy to like, despite being violence-loving sociopathic mercenaries, which says quite a lot for Tayler’s skill. However this book seems to take it up a notch. Suddenly they become real people. I think that the addition of Para Ventura is the reason for this. She simultaneously holds her own in arguments of philosophy and technology with the likes of Kevyn (the inventor of the Teraport) but she also delivers on her promise to turn a broken tank into the Longshoreman of the Apocalypse (Lota for short)… and she does it all while mouthing off and being hilarious in that way that only a sarcastic teenager can be.

Her strength of character pulls the rest of the characters up from the level of likable to lovable and suddenly I care what happens to them. Except for Schlock, I’ve always cared about Schlock because… actually it’s sort of beyond reason, he just is. With Para around suddenly I don’t want Pi to die when he is constantly setting off explosions early, I don’t want Chelle to die when her tank crashes, or Elf when the rebellion catches her, or Nick or Brad or Kevyn or Tagon.

I’m probably biased. This is the story that introduced me to Schlock Mercenary and I’ve read it every day ever since. But it feels like the best of the bunch and I love it.

Books I read, Pictures I take.

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