Towers of Midnight: Victory Is Mine

I might be the last Wheel of Time fan to finish it, but no matter: I was undaunted.

And at last, I have achieved my victory.  I’ve finished this book (behemoth that it was).

After that, I’m going to take a short hiatus on reading books for a week or two, to focus more on my writing and get myself up to speed.  Then, I’ll probably go back to A Clash of Kings, the second book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.  As I mentioned in comments on my blog: that series is good, but I can’t relate to any of its characters, and as a result despite being very well-written these books just haven’t been terribly compelling for me.  I stopped A Game of Thrones half-way through to read The Gathering Storm, and then I stopped Kings about a third of the way through in favor of Towers.  “The Wheel of Time” just trumps “Ice and Fire” for me.

So, with that bit of preamble out of the way, I’m going to do something I don’t do on my blog: I’m going to go all spoilery on you and commiserate with any Wheel of Time fans who happen across the blog about the ending of The Towers of Midnight.  Don’t worry… it’s all below the cut (you have to click “Read More”), so you won’t see it unless you click through.   I have to do it because… well… the ending of Towers left me with a feeling of “Are you kidding!  You can’t do that!  You’re telling me I have to wait how long for the next book?  I don’t think I can handle this!  The anxiety is killing me!”  You’ve been warned… Continue reading


Review: Wheel of Time Books 1 thru 12

So, over the holiday weekend, I finally finished The Gathering Storm, the twelfth book in the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan.  I’d mentioned some time ago that when I finish this book, I’d do a review of the series up to this point.  My reasoning for doing a review of the series, and not of just this book, is that by this point fans of the series are likely to know whether or not they want to read the next book, whereas people who’ve never read these books are more likely to want to start from the beginning.  So, a review is of little worth to the former (especially some ten months after the book’s release) and the latter will be more interested to know if the series as a whole is worth investing in.  So, here’s my review: the good, the bad, and the ugly of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

(I will try to keep this review spoiler-light, as it is intended for those who’ve never read the books, but I can’t promise I won’t mistakenly slip one in here or there.) Continue reading

Giving Criticism

It’s been a while since I was trying to track down a few folks to give the story I’ve been working on a read and get back some useful criticism to help me improve the story.  I only ever got two readers, but the feedback they gave was pretty useful.  I’m still working through the story, trying to revise the story.  There hasn’t been much noticeable progress this week – what with the project overload going on in class and it being that time of month at work.  Rewriting and revising can be hard work, and it takes a real attention to detail.  It’s attention I just haven’t been able to give my story this week.

And then, almost two weeks ago, now, I get a message from an old high school friend asking if I’d mind giving her YA fantasy manuscript a read and critique.  (As a side note: I’d completely left her out of my mental list of “People I know who are trying to write a fantasy or science fiction novel.  For the record, that list now counts to five, including myself and not including online-only acquaintances.  If even one of us makes it in the traditional publishing world, we’ll be in good and rare company.)  Of course, given my own recent interest in finding reviewers for my short story, I couldn’t very well say “no“.  That’d be a bit unsportsmanlike and a bit hypocritical of me.  That said, I didn’t have a lot of free time between class and work and what-all else is going on in my life.  So, I told her that sure, I could do that, if she didn’t mind the long wait it would take.

So, it’s been nearly two weeks, and I’ve read part of what she sent me to critique.  I’ll spare you the details of my critique – a critique is really a private matter between a reader and a writer (or, if you’re in a writers’ or critiquers’ group, a private matter between the members of the group), and besides which, I’ve only read a very little as yet.  Still, I thought this would be a good time to comment on the protocols of giving criticism, such as I know them (which is not to say that these are universal rules, but this is how I look at criticism).

My first rule, and I expect this from those who critique my own work as well as this being the standard to which I hold my own critiques, is to lead with the positive.  Admittedly, this is a hard rule to follow.  Some stories really are without any merit.  Even so, leading with a positive comment is one of the best ways for the critique to actually take hold in the mind of the writer.  In fact, this rule holds true for all kinds of criticism and review in all walks of life, whether you’re a boss doing a review of your employees, or a parent teaching a child. Starting with a positive, uplifting comment preps the mind of the reviewee to accept the criticism that’s coming.

(Now this doesn’t apply to reviews by professional critics meant for a general audience.  That’s information meant to help a consumer make an informed choice.  I.e. if a movie really sucks, I’d like to know before I spend my hard-earned dollar and a couple hours on it.)

The second thing to keep in mind is this: a reviewer needs to separate the work from the writer.  This is an even harder thing to do than the first rule.  In a recent “Daily Kick” by author David Farland, he had this to say:

Critique the story, not the person. Don’t assume that a character in a story is the author’s mouthpiece. Very often, as authors, we write from the point of view of people who, quite frankly, we find loathsome, particularly when we’re dramatizing problems in society that we dislike.

But this is a problem that runs both ways.  I myself have never taken part of a critique group where strangers gathered to critique one another’s work.  So, in my experience, most of my reviewers have friends and family.  The common thread in reviews from friends and family is that they often avoid any direct criticism, and are filled instead with generalized platitudes.  This is primarily because they don’t want to offend the friend-or-family-member who happens to be an aspiring writer.  It’s well-meaning, but it’s ineffective.  I learned when I was a little younger to make sure I was upfront about what I wanted and needed in a critique.  Any well-adjusted writer or aspiring writer can accept an honest critique of his or her work, even when it’s negative, or else he soon learns to if he’s going to continue writing.  Likewise a reviewer will judge a work on its merits, not on either a pre-existing relationship with the author, nor on preconceived notions about the author.

Which brings me to my final guideline for critiquing: A critique needs to point out the weaknesses in a story and the places where it can be improved, or else it’s of no value to the author.  Ultimately, it’s up to the author to figure out how to address the problems or how to fix it.  But it’s because the author recognizes that he or she wants to improve the story – and that ergo there must be room for improvement – or else he wouldn’t have shopped for a review in the first place!  When I’m writing, my end-goal is to get published.  And for that means I want my work to be as free of weaknesses and shortcomings as possible.  That means grammatical errors, stylistic errors, story, plot, characterization, dialog: the whole gamut.  All of these things are fair game, and I want to know if I miss the mark in any of those areas.

It’s not really possible to write a “perfect”‘ story.  Each reader is going to bring his or her own prejudices and preferences.  Not every story is meant to reach and satisfy every audience, and each audience will have different demands and needs in the stories they want to be told.  But with a good critique, we as writers can learn the things that we need to know to make sure we craft the best tale we possibly can and one that, ultimately, satisfies our first and primary audience: ourselves.

Happy writing.

Short Story Update

I haven’t talked much about my current writing project, of late.  I’d put the short story aside for a while in hopes that I’d get one more critique on it before starting in on major revisions in earnest.  Well, late last week I got that critique in.  So, three total critiques (that is, two critiques plus my wife) isn’t many to go on, but I’ve noticed the emergence of a couple consistent themes. 

Both non-wife reviewers remarked heavily on the world the story takes place on, with generally positive comments in regards to that.  The first reviewer, a friend of mine, explained that he thought there was a lot of unexplored potential in the world I’d set up.  It seemed to me he liked the idea of it, but that I didn’t take it to as deep a level as he’d have liked.  The second reviewer commented that the world was his favorite part of the story, contrasting that with the action at in the final few pages of the story where I spring out all the plot twists.

Frankly, this sentiment was surprising to me.  I didn’t consider that the world I had created was exceptionally original.  It was really the result of a pretty simple formula.  All of my cool ideas, I thought, were in the plot twists I built around this fairly simple central premise.  In fact, I guess, that was my first reviewer’s point: he saw through to the simplicity of the formula, and felt that there was more unexplored depth in that formula than I was using in the story.  Combined with the second reviewer’s contention that the focus of the story ought to be shifted toward this, that suggests that maybe I do need to spend more time developing the world of the story.

But at almost 10,000 words, this piece is already past the length limit of most of the online markets, which effectively cuts them out of my market for this story.  That salability limitation has me a little worried.  I’d planned on the reviews and critiques helping me to cut out some 500 to 1,000 words.  But to follow the advice of my two reviewers, I’m likely going to have to add word count (even if I’m simultaneously taking out stuff that becomes redundant or duplicative).   It’s an interesting challenge.

My first reviewer also mentioned specific weaknesses in characterization and dialog, which I’d mentioned before.  Added to that are the second reviewer’s comments: that there is a minor plot hole that I need to patch, that some of the plot twists near the very end of the story seem a little tacked on and possibly extraneous, that they (the twists) get a little confusing to follow, that one major plot point remains unresolved at the end, and that it all (the conclusion) happens very fast after a fairly leisurely set-up.

So, that’s a bit to chew on.

I only have the two reviews, besides my wife’s comments, so I take them very seriously.  And I’ve been thinking hard about what the common themes are, and how I can address the problems mentioned by both.  For instance, I wonder if the second reviewer’s suggestion that the story focus more on its world is perhaps related to my first reviewer’s comment on the weak characterization.  If the main character of the story, through who’s eyes we interact with this world, doesn’t capture the reader’s interest or keep them emotionally invested, then the twists at the end, which are based on that character’s limited perception, will lack any emotional impact or story-telling value.  It’s also possible that the twists make a dull thud because they aren’t foreshadowed enough.  And considering the number of twists (there are four, by my count) it’s quite probable that I need to take more time to unravel them.  Still, it’s hard to know if I’m on the right track here.  Ultimately I guess I have to go with my gut in how to tell the best story I can.

So, here’s my plan on how I’m going to revise this story.

  1. Strengthen Characterization – I have to create some reason for the reader to become emotionally invested in the main character.  That’s a tall order.  One way to do that, which I’ve been reading about recently (particularly in Dave Farland’s “Daily Kick in the Pants”, incidentally, which you can sign up for on his site, if you’re interested) is to give the character internal conflicts and a duality.  My problem is my main character’s primary internal conflict is essentially resolved before the start of the story, as it’s part of the central premise of the story.   So, I have to give him a current conflict, something that drives him and makes him relatable.
  2. Improve the Foreshadowing – I’d worked hard to try to make sure that the plot twists at the end are logically consistent with the world and story I’d set up.  But it’s pretty clear I didn’t quite get the effect I was intending.  If I’d done my job right, the final twists would be less confusing and more emotionally resonant.  Part of the extra foreshadowing I will have to do will likely have to tie back to the stronger characterization.
  3. Flesh Out the World – The common theme from the two reviews really is that I need to spend more time fleshing out the world the story takes place in.  Suggestions from the first reviewer include more consideration of the ramifications of the central premise of the story. 
  4. Tighten up the Dialog – There are a few spots, in particular, where I realize the story would benefit from me reading the dialog aloud to myself, to hear what it sounds like.  I imagine that I should be able to hear where the speech rhythm is off, or where I word things in ways that most normal people wouldn’t, when speaking.
  5. Revisit the Final Act – Here’s where my challenge really lies.  The first reviewer liked the twists, but felt they lacked the emotional impact they could have had.  The second  reviewer disliked the twists, possibly because they had no emotional impact for him and were just too confusing, or possibly because he just didn’t like them, and was expecting a different sort of conclusion.  I personally kind of feel like the twists are pretty central to the main theme of the story, so I’m banking on the idea that the reason the second reviewer didn’t like them was the former, rather than the latter.  To make it a little less confusing, I’m going to have to give the final act a little more room to unwind itself, and give the main character a little more time to stop and think about “What It All Means©” before rushing like a freight train toward the final conclusion.
  6. Fill the Plot Hole – It’s a fairly minor plot hole, but it ought to be filled.  It revolves around why a character takes one action instead of another, perhaps more logical action at a certain point in the story.  There ought to be some reason why he doesn’t take the ostensibly more logical action.
  7. Resolve the Unresolved – I think it’s okay to leave a few loose threads in a story (or at least, it’s actually kind of important in a novel), but in a short story, to leave such a major thread unresolved is perhaps not a good idea.  Mainly, this thread went unresolved because I’d been indecisive as to what, precisely, actually happened.  I’m okay with ambiguity, but I was frankly nervous about resolving this thread because doing so, and deciding what happened on this particular thread, would entail a lot of extra work, potentially making the story longer.

 I have other options to consider as well.  If the world of this story is really as interesting as both reviewers suggest, it makes me wonder if it’s one that ought to be revisited.  If so, can I do only a tiny little bit of fleshing out here, then do more fleshing out in a follow-up story?  I hadn’t previously considered it because the story resolves with a certain amount of finality.  And no matter how interesting the world, I don’t know that I could return to it unless I had an equally compelling story to tell that happened to be set in it.  I guess it’s a matter of… we’ll just have to see.

I have my work cut out for me… Happy writing!

Writing Quote: Let it rest

Today’s quote is a little advice about putting some distance between yourself and what you write before picking it up to review it again:

Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially.

~A. Bronson Alcott

The only part I must disagree with, though, is the advice not to let your “author” friends see your work.  That strikes me as either a little paranoid or a missed opportunity to get some valuable feedback.  That, after all, is why they have writer’s groups.  (Some day I may yet join one, when I have time to dedicate to it.)

Happy Writing

First Draft Review

I got the first bit of review (and so far, only) on my story back yesterday, with comments from my friend Clint.  He’s a writer himself, one with perhaps a little more experience than I, and with a particular ear for dialogue (as I recall, he’s worked in television, in one fashion or another).  It was good to read his comments.  As much as I feel that this “first” draft is a huge improvement over the prior version of this story (I call this a first draft largely because the story is so different, and improved, from what I wrote before – with new characters and a slightly different plot), those comments do suggest I yet have quite a bit of work ahead of me.

In my opinion, the most important issue brought up by Clint’s read-through is characterization.  It was his opinion that the main character was somewhat weak on characterization, and that he couldn’t connect with him.  This is particularly problematic as it relates to the twist ending of the story, as it dampens the twist by sapping it of some of its potential energy.  I thought, as I read his comments, back to the first step I took in rewriting this story.  I thought of each of the characters and wrote a short bio, from their own perspective, and branched out from there.  In so doing, I created a few additional characters who appeared as new connections from the original characters of the story.  But when I go back over that file, I realized that the main character’s bio is actually the shortest of the group and, frankly, the least interesting.  The longest bio actually belongs to the last character to appear in the story.

This was, in part, a strange result of the way I went about doing this.  I started with the main character’s bio.  What I had in mind, still, was the story I had originally written, but I knew that wasn’t where I was going.  Still, I didn’t yet know where I was going.  So, as I wrote the bios, I let the story come out.  With each bio, more of the back story came out so that, as I got toward the last few characters, what was going on was a lot more interesting than where I started.  By the end, my point-of-view character ended up perhaps less three-dimensional and nuanced than one would like a main character to be. 

So, I’m thinking that one thing I need to do is revisit that very first bio, for my main character, and see if there isn’t something else going on.  What makes my main character interesting or compelling?  What will allow him to connect with readers?  And then, how do I take that new insight back to the story and incorporate it into the story?

Another area Clint brought up was dialogue.  Some of it, he said, was a little stiff.  Now, I intentionally wrote one particular character with awkward dialogue, but as I think on it, I realize I don’t want that to jeopardize the story as a whole.  And Clint’s comments weren’t specific to that character, anyway.  I realize that dialogue is probably one area where I need to work, and improve my skill (as I’ve blogged about before).

He had some other interesting thoughts on the overall content of the story (and touched on its length in an unexpected way).  Overall, I thought his comments were very useful.  Luckily my self-imposed deadline is still a ways off; I have quite a bit of work to do to finish polishing this story up.

Incidentally, I’d still love to hear some other thoughts and opinions on the story.  One or two more, at least, would be wonderful, so I’m open to hearing from you readers.

Finally, in a P.S., Clint mentioned that a friend of his, who grew up on a farm, remarked that some of my use of horse-gear in the story was incorrect.  The main character in the story rides horses pretty regularly and is quite familiar with them but I, on the other hand, learned everything I know about saddling up horses from tortuous sessions wrangling data out of Google, and have never been on a horse except once, as a child under very controlled circumstances (I did not truly ride the horse so much as be on its back as it walked in a circle).  So, if any of you out there know more about horses, and could point me to useful resource on all things saddling and riding horses, I’d be pretty appreciative!

Happy Writing.

Updates of All Kinds

I regret to inform my dear reading public that there was not, in fact, any Wii-playing over the weekend.  There was instead an overabundance of homework-doing and anxiety-having (on account of the homework, largely).  The cabinet doors did get finished, both the painting and the mounting, but the Wii had to wait.

Beyond that, my current short-story is in the hands of one reader – other than my wife.  I’m still interested in finding one or two other readers who might be so inclined as to provide some thoughts and feedback on the story (and who will not be put off by the story being a fantasy story).  My goal, in pursuing feedback, is in learning what are the critical weaknesses of the story in its current form (operating under the assumption that I am too inexperienced a writer to discern those myself, and that they in fact exist). 

My wife discovered one perhaps critical flaw: she got a little confused about just what was going on in the climax of the story.  That suggests I was not as perfectly clear in the exposition at that point.  Up until the moment of the climax I tried to obfuscate and subtly mislead, while providing sufficient clues as to what was really going on.  Once everything hits the fan, though, I wanted things to be clear to the reader even as they became increasingly unclear to the narrator (the story is told in first person perspective, so that makes it a bit more challenging, I guess).  I added probably a couple dozen lines of exposition to try and make things more explicitly clear, but I’m well aware that I may not have succeeded yet, in that regard.

I put out a general call on Facebook to find folks who might be amenable to giving my story a read.  My reasoning was that most of my “friends” on Facebook are friends in real life.  But the thing about facebook is: once you broadcast your message, there’s no realistic likelihood that anyone will see it.  What Facebook chooses to show on your newsfeed seems to be determined algorithmically, but it’s not easy to figure out how that algorithm works.  From a user’s perspective, it’s pretty random and scattershot.  And you have to have a certain level of masochism to switch away from the “newsfeed” to troll all the recent wall posts, etc. of all your friends.  I don’t have time for that level of masochism, and most FB users don’t seem to either.  So my general call was probably easily burried, and those who did see it were mostly not the ones most amenable to answering it, I suspect.

On a tangential topic, I’ve added a Twitter feed for my blog, so that updates will now be posted there, as well.  You can follow me at @swatkinsjr.  For the time being, the only thing that will appear on my twitter feed will be posts about this blog – twitter is blocked from work, but these tweets will be managed from a back-end.  If I ever live in a future where I have a job in which services like Twitter are not blocked… who knows.  In general, I consider my daily life insufficiently compelling to warrant hourly updates, as it were.  But if I have a pithy thought, during the day, that might be worth sharing.  For now, however, that shall not be.