Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman, 4.9 Stars

This story beautifully captured two things for me: depression and dissatisfaction with the futility of life.

The main character, Quentin Coldwater, lives a lifestyle that he thinks will make him happy, but doesn’t. Drugs and sleeping around don’t bring him fulfillment, they only make him more miserable. One scene perfectly encapsulates this realization that his lifestyle is worsening his depression, and it is hurting those he loves.

The book also communicates just how HARD magic can be. I mean, every spell requires a set of hand symbols which are so complex, your hands ache after practicing them. Then, every spell must be modified according to the “circumstances”, ways that you must tweak your spells due to nearby factors. The nearest body of water, the political affiliation of the people nearby, the time of year, the location of the moon, whether your bladder is full (the last was a joke… almost), etc.  There are literally books and books filled with tables and charts describing all of these.

Magic isn’t much explained, since you basically need a genius-level intellect to comprehend it at all (which is why the magical college only recruits people with such intellect as potential students). But Lev Grossman doesn’t use magic to solve crazy plot problems (and if he does, he quite efficiently explains THAT part of the magic). In fact, magic, or the ability to do almost whatever you want, causes problems in the protagonist’s sense of purpose. He can get almost whatever he wants, therefore he is depressed and feels like life has no point. The plot issues must be solved through different means.

People talk about hard-magic (rule-based) and soft-magic (mysterious). Other novelists use educating the reader about the rules as a way to solve plot problems, and I LOVE novels like that. But Lev Grossman doesn’t do this. As I said above, being able to do anything with magic, even though it’s really hard, does not solve the emotional and relationship issues of the main characters.

If you don’t mind f-bombs and a moderate amount of sexuality (he doesn’t go into pornographic detail, but these ARE promiscuous twenty-somethings), then I DEFINITELY recommend this book. It touches my own inner pains in a way that no other novel quite has. The part that suffers from anxiety and depression. And, most important of all, it gives HOPE for the future. Despite the truth of these sorrows, he gives you HOPE as a truth to top it all.

-Thomas Fawkes

p.s. It’s also a TV show on Sci-fi. I’ve watched part of the first season. It’s pretty good! More rushed, and they also add more events and change things. It’s different from the book, just know that and perhaps you’ll enjoy it too. 🙂

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Book Review: Strange of Tempest by Tom Lloyd 4.5 Stars

2 words: MAGE GUNS

Stranger of Tempest is an epic fantasy with a heavy dose of… modernish warfare? (due to guns). The mage-guns use element-based ammo forged by mages, who have been coerced into service by various religious military orders (think Knights Templars or other crusade-era religious armies).

The protagonist, a middle-aged war veteran, is a skilled sharpshooter. He was also on the wrong side of the war and was imprisoned when he called out his own army’s cruelty. Apart from a small handful of flashbacks, he is NOT in prison during this book, and I won’t reveal too many details of his past. I will say that one fascinating thing about him is his obsession with reading. Since he can only keep what he can carry, he always keeps one book. And once he’s read it, he sells it and buys another. An incredibly human trait in a person you might expect to be hardened.

The story follows Lynx (the veteran), Sitain (a mage he rescues from a militant order), and the mercenary crew known as “the Cards.” They’re on the run from the militant order that wanted to kidnap Sitain. Their chase leads them through a city, tunnels inhabited by a 3-gendered 4-armed race, and ancient ruins full of unholy terrors. It leans much farther toward adventurous than horrific, and YES, the terrifying behemoth on the cover does make an EPIC appearance.

Also, just look at that cover. There’s something psychologically stimulating about the man’s posture (it’s similar to Wanderer above the Sea of Fog which, in turn, inspired many movie posters).

Overall, a fine read. Some parts got a little too much on the sexual detail, and if you’re not paying attention the time jumping can get disorienting, but the balance between action, adventure, and especially empathy for these characters make it very much worth the read!

Booyah!

-Thomas Fawkes

Book Review: Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson – 5 stars

Warbreaker is a wonderful stand-alone epic fantasy.

There are 4 main POV’s, two sister princesses (one refined, one irreverent), a god returned from the dead, and a mysterious vagabond with a talking sword and a mysterious agenda.

Brandon Sanderson does an excellent job building out his characters, who all sound unique and have their own strengths. Often, writers (mostly male) want to imply that “strong female characters” are well-written female characters, but often they just come across as “tough-as-nails, no-nonsense, butt-kicking female character.” (I also hate when male characters are written as 2-dimensional butt-kickers with little variance. Too much emphasize on the physical aspects of “strong.”)

 V.E. Schwab (https://twitter.com/veschwab/) a female fantasy author, was asked in a panel “How do you write strong female characters?” She explained about how first, she hates that people ask her that question. “Do you ask how men write strong male characters?” and also how it’s not some magic mumbo-jumbo, just treat them like PEOPLE. Like fully-fleshed out human beings (not objects or plot devices, that should be obvious). She said “I treat all my characters as people. End of story.”

Sanderson does that here. The sisters and the god returned from the dead are not warriors. The sisters have very different strengths (emotional understanding, drive, talent for magic, a keen eye for detail), and they are placed in situations which at first seem opposite to their ability, but after some struggle and growth it turns out that their strengths are PERFECT for where they were put.

The last POV character, the mysterious vagabond with the talking sword, gets the fewest number of POV’s. He keeps you guessing about who he is and what he wants.

Sanderson masterfully executes a few paradigm shifts throughout the course of the novel. Characters question their faith, see things in a new light, and learn that nothing is as it seems.

I’ve talked at a very high level, which is mostly what I intend to do. The simplest way to describe it is that a princess is sent off to marry the God-king in order to maintain peace, and her sister goes to rescue her. While in the background bigger forces are at worth that threaten all kingdoms.

Great character development, great dialogue, great action. I recommend!

How to discipline your creative brain

In short, rid yourself of the mindset that you have a Creative Brain and an Analytical Brain. Create a new mindset where you have 1 brain: A well-trained, well-practiced, and highly-disciplined Creative Brain.


In talking about Heinlein’s rules, Dean Wesley Smith says that writing is a creative activity, that we shouldn’t grind all personality out of our work by rewriting. He also says that we must read constantly; we must analyze the writing of others; we must study craft, prose, and, most importantly, storytelling techniques; we must actually write; and we must finish what we write.

Heinlein’s Rules:

  1. You must write
  2. Finish what you start
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order
  4. You must put your story on the market
  5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold
  6. You must study the craft (I added this, from comments Dean made)

In reading his book, a metaphor took form in my head. Currently, most people view their brains as being the creative brain and the critical brain.

The creative brain is like a hippy, wild and free, running around with no forethought, no discipline, making scattered notes on the piano or splattering paint all over the walls, all wild and random and instinctual expression.

The analytical brain is like a librarian, strict and stern, concerned with order and organization and cleaning up the messes of others, following behind the hippy and trying to find what it considers “good” music or an “artistic” paint job based off of what others have said before. Whatever fits the librarians prescribed beliefs survives, everything is muted or painted over.

This is a BAD mental model. It makes it so that the hippy bears no responsibility, and the librarian has all authority but is often following the trend so much that whatever “art” is left is drab, boring, and so much like everything else.

A new mental model is needed. Instead of two halves, there is one whole. An artist. A musician, a composer, a dancer. The artist has all the creativity of the the hippy but doesn’t lack foresight. The artist has all of the discipline of the librarian and none of the generalizing prescribed notions.

The artist finds the balance between expression and creation, discipline and focus. It is to take the hippy and offer focused practiced and study. Not to see what is commonly accepted by other professionals (like the librarian), but to learn how to create an experience for the consumer. A powerful emotional experience, tested and learned step by step, with focused practice. Not wanton splattering of random ideas nor the arbitrary slaughter of all but the most statistically accepted by values that seem to exist “just because.”

Dean Wesley Smith says:

“Rewriting is when you do a sloppy first draft with the intent of “letting it sit” (dumbest thing I have ever heard) and then “fix it” later.

This lazy attitude is the attitude of the hippy and the librarian (which actually ends up being a LOT MORE work). Have the attitude of the Artist. Dean says:

“If you tell your creative voice to do it right the first time, the story won’t be broken.”

Train your creative voice. Read a lot. Consume stories. Study how stories are written. Use that in your writing. Practice. Practice. Practice. Become the writer you were meant to be.

 

p.s. Read everything by Dean Wesley Smith. His words about the business of writing have transformed the way I approach the writing career.

Wait, after 25 drafts of a query, I have to write a synopsis too?

So, I’m here trying to write a synopsis for my novel to send with my submission packet. Yow my brain hurts! After writing 25 drafts of my query, I’m pretty sick of my story.

Not that it’s a bad story, but after trying to describe it so many times it just feels like it’s about nothing. Or it feels like when I glaze over the complexities, I just have a hard time.

I puked one version out, I think I’ll print it and tweak it.

I’ll just keep plugging along.

False progress activities (Getting nowhere, but working so hard!)

One thing we do when working towards a goal is something I will now coin “False Progress Activities.”  This is when we want to procrastinate the hard part of a goal (e.g. actually writing the darn query letter) and we instead focus on tasks that help, that are far easier, but give little progress.

For example, I researched a bunch of articles on writing query letters, and am now combining them into a super-article! Taking out every tip and sorting them by topic (overall style, intro paragraphs, synopsis paragraphs, closing paragraphs). It’s very educational!

Or… I should be reading 1 article, attempting a draft at that query letter, and then reading some more and editing it and having others read it and rewriting again…

BUT I LOVE ORGANIZING! It makes me feel industrious! I’m getting nowhere but I’m working so hard at it!

Time to toughen up and write a first draft of that query.

 

 

And I just realized… I can’t procrastinate giving my novel a title if I’m going to submit it. 😛

How do I find the right editor or agent?

So I’ve been searching for agents and editors, and sheesh this process is hard!

First, I bought “2016 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market” and “2016 Guide to Literary Agents.” Then I went through the publishers and agencies that represented fantasy and I highlighted which ones I thought might be good (because they didn’t explicitly say “No epic fantasy!” That’s about all I had to go off of.)

Then I made an excel spreadsheet and listed them all.

Then I went online and checked out their websites and removed some because they didn’t seem my style. And then I wanted to understand their style better. How do I know which agent works with which authors and which genre and which publisher and which agent and… and…

HOW DO I KNOW IF THEY LIKE MY “STYLE” OF FICTION?

I was listening to Writing Excuses to get feedback on how to learn what “style” of fiction agents and editors prefer. And they said:

  1. Check out their twitter for MS wishlists.
  2. Check out their publishing house to see what books they’ve published (p.s. those don’t list the editor).
  3. Check out publishers lunch to see recent deals (since there are many more genres than epic fantasy, there will be a lot of deals that aren’t even remotely my genre).
  4. Listen to individual agents and editors talk at conferences and chat with them (wait, with the likelihood that they DON’T publish my kind of fiction, how many agents and editors are there exactly?)
  5. Go to the bookstore and read the acknowledgements of books you like (which you probably haven’t read cause they’re new and there’s not a lot of old books at the bookstore so you’re not even sure if they are your particular “style”) and list the agents and editors named in books you like.

There are A LOT of problems with this system. Some of which I’ve already mentioned. With how many agents/editors out there, my potential sample size from the above suggestions makes it nigh impossible to find the “right” agent/editor. (Note: They all say, research me first!)

The answer is a database, that lists the agents and editors, what publishing houses they’ve worked with, which agents and editors they’ve worked with, which authors they’ve worked with, which novels they’ve worked on, and a complex/detailed genre classification system so that I can know what genre classifications my book has (Epic, heroic, feminist, religious, magic, hard science, whatever), and so that I can go from that angle. Instead of sampling random hard to find agents, searching by the traits/classifications of my novel, and finding the agents and editors that match that “style” of fiction.

If that were to exist, agents and editors (might) get less junk mail that doesn’t fit their style, authors will be less confused, and less time would be wasted all around.

Maybe instead of whining, I should build this thing. 🙂