Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Books (vol. 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck, Different Seasons by Stephen King, Curtain by Agatha Christie or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson is hereby advised that this point may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It’s that time again! We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books, TV shows and films, and now it’s time to return for a second helping of super snappy book reviewsAs before, the books I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my ever-growing book collection and do not necessarily have anything in common apart from the fact that they are all books. They are not necessarily books that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

As always, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressionssquished, sliced and diced into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

As much as I like fantasy, I’m also picky about it. Fortunately, this book (the first instalment of the Mistborn series) has it all: a richly imagined fantasy world, compelling characters, an excellent magic system and a plot which kept me glued to its pages from beginning to end. Best of all, Sanderson has obviously understood that while good world building and detailed magic systems are important elements of fantasy, it is characters that really count when it comes to writing a good story.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Speaking of fantasy, this book (the first instalment of Pratchett’s Discworld series) is arguably one of the most imaginative books I have ever come across. The characters are compelling and there is a goodly dash of wit spread throughout this rather dream-like narrative. My only complaint is that while the world building does demonstrate something of Pratchett’s superhuman imagination, the time spent he spends explaining the minute details of his world (and the additional time required for the reader to assimilate it all) does drag the pace down to a crawl at certain points.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

At the risk of being flamed to death… I found A Game of Thrones a bit of a drag. No, wait, hear me out! It’s got a lot going for it! There’s a lot of different characters’ points of view represented in the book which made it more true to life (though a bit more difficult to follow; just who is the protagonist in this story?), strong world-building, a good plot it’s just… I don’t know. I found myself getting bored as I read it. I’ve not been able to bring myself to read the next six books yet. Maybe I’ll watch the TV show one day and see what all the fuss is about.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck can do no wrong. This little novel is about a small but tactically important coal mining town which is taken over by a battalion from a non-specific nation (reminiscent of Nazi Germany) who are at war with England and Russia. It is essentially a story about freedom, democracy and oppression, crafted with the kind of fineness of style that only Steinbeck can produce. Read it now.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Different Seasons by Stephen King

This collection of stories by Stephen King includes, among others, the classic Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. In true King style, most of these stories have a dark tone to them, although I wouldn’t really have described any of them as horrors or fantasies in the truest sense of the word (although The Breathing Method does include certain fantasy elements, I suppose). I loved, loved, loved Shawshank. The Body and The Breathing Method were alright too. Apt Pupil was also very well written, however it did focus on a young boy with an unhealthy obsession with violence and his toxic relationship with a Nazi surgeon. Personally, I found it a little too dark for my tastes.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Curtain by Agatha Christie

In this, the final adventure for Christie’s famous Belgian detective, we see a Hercule Poirot (now very frail and elderly) who has been drawn back to the scene of his first adventure to solve one last crime before it even takes place. The mood is somewhat more melancholy than in earlier Poirot novels and I must admit… I found the ending just a little bit ridiculous, given the otherwise serious tone of the book. It feels a bit like Christie came up with a compelling mystery but then was unable to imagine a good way to resolve it. In a word, an okay read until you get to the end.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson

I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in this little volume. Jekyll and Hyde is, of course, a classic tale which has justifiably earned a familiar spot in modern culture, even among those who haven’t read it. The Merry Men was okay, although I found Stevenson’s rendering of the Scottish accent difficult to follow (and I’m a Scottish person myself!). Markheim and Olalla were both enjoyable enough little reads with (not too) dark undertones. Janet Thrawn was decidedly tedious. The Treasure of Franchard, with its larger than life characters, was easily my favourite.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Well, I hope you enjoyed these itzy-witzy book reviews. No doubt we’ll do it all again soon! Why not comment your own thoughts on these books below? Or maybe you could give us a short review of something else that you’re reading? And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to ‘like’ it and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you fancy it.

Oh, and be sure to come back next week for the next instalment of 6 ‘SIX WORD STORIES’ FOR THE 6TH.

Hey Author, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

‘Oh, so you’re an author then? Where do you get all your story ideas from?’

Ughhhh! Stop asking me that! I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have more ideas!

Er-hem.

Okay, so for reasons best known to yourself, you want to know where to find the House of the Magical Idea Wizard and think that perhaps I, or one of my author colleagues (you know, the ones that have actually got a few novels published), might have the answers you seek. I know I’m not alone in having people ask me about this. Writers’ blogs seem to be replete with authors whining and complaining about how often their family, friends and fans (those of you who have fans) ask them this same question.

Well… today, O seeker of insight, I am going to attempt to answer this singularly annoying and misguided question in the only way I can: from my own narrow experience.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no Magical Idea Wizard. Or at least, if there is, I’ve never met him. Plot bunnies are certainly real enough, but they are not bred by any one person whom you can purchase one from, nor do they grow on a special tree. In fact, between you and me, I’m not even sure plot bunnies are all that useful. They’re certainly not to be relied upon if you plan on making a career out of story writing.

‘Hold the bus for just a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘What on earth’s a plot bunny when it’s at home?’

I’m glad you asked. A plot bunny is a story idea that pops into your head and won’t go away. They tend to appear out of the blue. For example, I recall on one particular occasion I was sitting on the upper deck of a bus coming home from the hospital where I work. At one point, while we were stopped at traffic lights, I noticed a Chinese takeaway and I was struck by exactly two thoughts:

  1. Mmm… salt and chilli chips…
  2.  If I ever figure out how to invent a time machine, I’m definitely going to keep it a secret. Then I’ll open a takeaway and be able to trump all the competition by travelling back in time to get all my orders to my customers mere moments after they make the order.

The first thought was mere gluttony. I ordered a takeaway when I got home and that was that. But the second thought was a plot bunny par excellence. For months I turned that strange little notion over in my mind, convinced that there was a story in it (for in itself, it was not a story but just a premise) but I just couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless it was a persistent nuisance in my brain, demanding to be written but it was a whole year before I was able to actually turn it into a story. More often than not, however, I find most plot bunnies come to nothing.

So… it is possible to be struck with sudden waves of inspiration, but they’re often unproductive in the long run and — more importantly — there’s absolutely no way to simply snap your fingers and make plot bunnies come to you on demand. In a word, plot bunnies are utterly unreliable.

Wise authors know that if you want to be able to write stories on demand, you need to be deliberate and methodical in developing your idea from the tiniest seed. That ‘seed’ could be anything. For me it’s usually either a theme I want to write about (e.g., my current novel started as a simple desire to write a story about rebellion) or else it’s a character looking for a story to belong to. But where does that ‘seed’ come from?

It’s not magic. All you need to do (boring though this sounds) is to make a deliberate point of setting aside time to sit down and be proactive in developing an idea from scratch. I don’t just hope for ideas to come to me on the bus, on the toilet or anywhere else (though I certainly write down any that do pop out of the blue). I set aside regular time to sit down at my desk and produce as many ideas as I can. Coming up with story ideas is not a supernatural gift that strikes without warning; it is a discipline which can be learned through practice and patience. I can play the trumpet, not because every now and again musical talent strikes me, but because I have devoted time and effort to regularly practising my skill. I started off rubbish. Over time, through regular practice, I became an accomplished (perhaps even good) trumpet player. If I stop practising for any length of time, my ‘talent’ gets noticeably rusty. The same is true of coming up with story ideas.

For me, I find the best way to come up with ideas is to brainstorm. I sit down with a notepad and give free reign to my thoughts, omitting nothing that comes to mind. Often I will find myself inventing characters who I can then audition or ‘interview’ in different settings and situations (the main antagonist in my current novel came about this way). Journaling can also be helpful. Scribbling down all my thoughts, feelings and opinions about politics, family, philosophy, religion, humour, music and whatever else comes to mind can often help me to discover new themes to explore in a fictional setting. I then question and experiment with whatever comes to mind. From there, it’s a simple matter of taking the time to refine my ideas. If I really, really, really can’t think of anything, there are plenty of prompts available online which you can use as a springboard into creativity; however, I tend to rely on these only as a last resort.

You asked me earlier whence ideas come. The simple, boring and profoundly mysterious answer is that they come from your own mind. There is no magic, but the everyday magic of that lump of slimy grey matter in your skull which, by some inexplicable design, is able to invent entire worlds and people from nothing and to use those inventions to communicate all manner of beliefs and philosophies. If you have a brain, you have ideas. You have all manner of ideas every day, both good ideas and bad ideas. You’ve probably had dozens of ideas already today, about a whole range of subjects. Turning these ideas into stories is simply a matter of practice and patience.

A Few Words About Magic in Fiction

I’ve recently been reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson and am so far loving everything about it. I love the characters, I love the world-building, I love Sanderson’s use of language, but more than anything I love the magic system he has created for his fantasy world.

Magic (as I’m loosely defining it here) features heavily in fantasy. The forms magic can take from one fantasy story to another, however, greatly vary. If you think I’m going to give you an exhaustive break-down of all the kinds of magic that appear in fantasy fiction, you’re sadly mistaken because I have neither the time nor the inclination do so, but I do want to try and break down what it takes to construct a good one as Sanderson has.

Let’s begin by highlighting an important pitfall we need to avoid. I am of course talking about the dreaded deus ex machina. For those of you who don’t know this term, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God in the machine’) is a literary device by which the problem faced by your characters is miraculously solved in an implausible or unexpected way which tends to be profoundly disappointing for the audience. If you’re including magic in your fantasy, there is a real temptation to endow your characters with a kind of practical omnipotence whereby they can rescue themselves from any situation simply by performing the right magic trick but doing this will suck all of the excitement out of your story.

I don’t want to harp on about Sanderson’s magic system in The Final Empire too much (mainly because I haven’t finished reading it yet and I might get things wrong) but it does serve as a good example of how to avoid this. This magic system (called Allomancy) involves ingesting and ‘burning’ certain key metals. Each metal endows the user with a particular ability. There are, however, only so many metals which can be used in Allomancy, which therefore puts a limit on the kinds of magic that can be used. Characters cannot randomly breathe fire or travel back in time but they can enhance all their physical attributes if they burn pewter, for instance. Allomancy is further limited by who can use it (Mistborns, who can burn all the metals and Mistings who can burn only one kind). There are many other limitations on this system too, but I hope you get the point: by creating limitations on magic, deus ex machina can be avoided because even the most powerful Allomancers can only act within the boundaries of what that world’s magic system allows them to do.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your magic system is inseparable from world-building. Indeed, creating your magic system is part of your world-building process. You need to ask yourself, therefore, where the magic comes from and how it works, even if you don’t make this explicit in the text itself. For instance, is it something inherent to certain creatures or people-groups in your world (fairies, wizards, dragons, women, children, the rich, the poor, etc) or is it something that can be learned or even purchased? Is it perceived as something natural or supernatural (in the same way we might perceive a difference between the science of medicine and miraculous spiritual healing)? In short, you need to ask yourself exactly what magic is, who has it, where it comes from and why.

Incidentally, it’s also worth remembering that the longer your fictional world has existed, the further your society’s understanding of magic is likely to have developed, in much the same way in the real world our knowledge about the universe has steadily increased – and we have developed technology which exploits that knowledge. If your characters are still crawling around in caves, they probably are barely aware of the intricacies of magic (even if they are aware of it at a primal or superstitious level), but if they are already flying around in spaceships, it’s likely that their understanding of your magical system will also be more advanced and this will be reflected in how they use (or avoid using) it.

Also remember that no matter what kind of system and history you create for magic in your world, it will affect the rest of the world and the characters in it, even if they cannot all perform magic themselves. It is not possible, for instance, to write a story set in a world just like our own except that all the children are telekinetic. Believe me, if a world ‘just like ours’ featured telekinetic children, we would have a very different society indeed; perhaps even a paedarchy. Certainly family life and systems of education would be drastically different from anything we have in the real world.

This is why it is so important to also ask yourself, why your story needs magic and what kind of magic it needs to make the story work. Having magic in your fictional world will fundamentally redefine that world and can undermine your story. Therefore, do not include magic just for the sake of having it. Like everything else in any good story, it must serve some function. And please, do not fall into the trap of thinking that magical abilities are your story. They are not. You can write a story which features telekinetic children if you like, but that’s not a plot or a cast of characters. That’s just a premise. Even in a magical fantasy, characters and the situations they find themselves in are always, always, always the beating heart of your story. The audience doesn’t really care about what your characters can do. The audience cares about what your characters need to do.

 

The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

Research is, undeniably, one of the most important stages of writing a story. Understanding the time and place your story is set in will enable you to make that story more true to life, and therefore, more compelling. But what if you are writing a fantasy, set in an imaginary world? Make no mistake: research is just as important in fantasy as it is in non-fantasy, perhaps even more so since you are creating a world from scratch. If you’re writing a historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War, you probably won’t need to research whether or not gravity existed in Spain or what colour the grass was. We can take these things for granted in non-fantasy, but in fantasy you need to become an expert on your entire world… and still make time to actually write the story!

I find that a good place to start is by learning a little about the real world; historical events, religious beliefs, foreign cultures, you name it. Anything that interests you. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to be able to create a bit of everything for your world anyway, so read as widely as you can bear to. If you’re still not sure exactly what you want to write about, my advice would be to read up on anything which grabs your attention and inspires you. For example, the inspiration for the novel I am currently working on came about as a result of me reading about a variety of unrelated real life subjects which I found interesting (specifically, the Beer Hall Putsch, the concept of extra-terrestrial real estate and the mythology of various ancient cultures). Even if you already do have an idea in your head about what you want to write about, it would still pay to try and expand on your idea by researching related real life subjects.

The more you read about the real world, the more you’ll come to realise that a believable world is replete with all kinds of different stuff; different races, religions, creeds and philosophies; different wars, treaties, governments and despots; different guilds, parties and organisations both legitimate and otherwise; different traditions and dissents of science, history, philosophy and art; different forms of vegetable, animal and mineral; different languages, dialects and accents; different laws, crimes and systems of justice; different myths, legends and parables… you get the idea. The natural world is a complex and intricate machine, interacting with the equally complex and often contradictory machines of human society. As if that weren’t complicated enough, what happens in one generation invariably affects the next, so history also matters. If you’re creating a fantasy world, you need to understand how all of this works within your world without falling into the trap of spending so much time world-building that you never actually write the story. Personally,  I feel that there are at least three key parts of any fantasy world that are vital for the author to understand.

The first thing to consider is the basic natural laws of your fantasy world, because this is the skeleton on which everything else in your story will hang. Is it spherical like our world? Terry Pratchett’s world wasn’t: his world was a disc supported on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a giant space-faring turtle. What about plant and animal life? Are there dragons, elves or something else entirely? Do the natural laws of your world include magic? If so, how does this magic work? Do supernatural beings influence your world? You can probably be as imaginative as you like but remember there are two basic rules I like to stick to:

  1. There must be some form of natural law to bring order to your world and to allow it to function in a rational, if strange, way. In short, it must make sense.
  2. Avoid superimposing fanciful things on a world which is otherwise identical to our own. Our society would not have developed as it has done if there were wizards running around the place with the power to magically engineer personal, social or political changes and nor will yours.

The next thing to consider is how society functions. This will undoubtedly be rooted in the rules you established for your natural world. For example, if your characters live among natural predators, you can bet your life that would impact their laws and values regarding the rights of animals. Better yet, what if their natural predators had a highly developed society of their own? For example, Zebrapeople and Lionpeople living on the same world. Would there be war? Would treaties be signed to keep the peace? What would such a treaty mean for the Lionpeople?

If your world is governed by gods, this will probably be reflected in your society’s religion and philosophy. If your world is not governed by gods, religion and philosophy will still exist and within each belief system, there are likely to be numerous denominations and splinter-groups to consider, each with their own individual opinions on how things are and how things should be. For every traditional belief or practice, there will probably be dissenters. You also need to consider if there are many empires, nations and tribal societies, how does each one of these function? What are their own particular customs, fashions, taboos, mannerisms, languages and so forth? As with the natural world, these things must function in a logical fashion but you should also make room for conflict: this will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of your story.

Finally and closely related to both of these is history. How did society get to where it is now? For example, let’s say the King of the Lionpeople has signed an agreement with the King of Zebrapeople saying that they won’t eat the Zebrapeople any more. The common Lionpeople take umbrage and revolt. That the premise for your story. The question we must now ask is why was this agreement signed? Was it to end a long running and costly war? If that is the case, who started the war and why? No society pops out of thin air; society is the way it is because of what happened previously to lead us to this point. To create a believable world, this must also be the case with your fantasy world. Go back into your world’s history, as far back as you feel you need to, in order to understand what brought us to this point, where your story begins.

Finally and most importantly, you must know when it’s time to stop nit-picking and start writing your story. You almost certainly won’t be able to please everybody nor is it a realistic ambition to try and determine every single last thing that ever happened everywhere on the surface of your world. Decide on the scope of what you are trying to accomplish in advance. Ask yourself what is the most relevant to your story and focus on that. J.R.R Tolkien probably had no idea what Gandalf’s great grandfather’s cousin’s pet budgie was called, but that didn’t stop him writing The Lord of the Rings.

Don’t let it stop you either. Write your story.