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!

2017 and Beyond!

Quick note on employment…

It has been FAR too long since I posted on this blog! Granted, my contract ran out at my last job, and I was quite frantically searching for a new place of employment. After 2 agonizing weeks of unemployment (hint: I’m being sarcastic), I found a new position!

I now work for a company called Thomas Arts (no, I don’t own it) as a User Experience and Information Architect. Dang I love the work I do. I love researching, analyzing, mapping out, and improving the emotional experience a user/customer goes through. Even now, my position is kind of new, and figuring out how I fit into a marketing agency (vs. just a software or product developing company) has been a challenge. I’ve been moved from the digital team over to Strategy, which has been great.

NOW, ABOUT THE WRITING

Last year was actually a pretty decent year for writing, job search/new job drama considered. I finished editing ROBBING GODS and TWO MASTERS. Something I had intended to do in 2016. They both turned out wonderfully! I am now doing a final revision on both with some things I’ve learned from The Emotional Craft of Fiction. More about that below.

THE BALANCE BETWEEN 1st Draft

Near the end of last year (November) I officially started out on the first draft of a novel called THE BALANCE BETWEEN. I finished February 2nd 2018 at 140k words. The fastest I’ve ever written (I had 2k-5k days). It’s a story I’ve been brainstorming for years. It’s about a fallen star god who has to overcome his addictions to stop his cosmic grandmother from consuming the universe:

People with the lifecycles of stars. A galaxy of a hundred flat worlds connected by portals. And magic space-monks. Part of the inspiration of this story was watching Star Wars, where George Lucas totally missed the mark on Buddhism, and thinking: “I can do magic Buddhist space monks better!” I undertook a deep study of philosophy, religion, and physics starting with quantum field theory and going all the way astrophysics and turned it all into a unified magic system. Meditation, balance, and surrender are important aspects to using this magic system. It also gave me the roots for EVERY magic system I’ve ever written. This one can describe them all, almost like code. I even drew this cool chart (spent WAY too much time on it of course), with a little inspiration from Sanderson:

Yoncraft Powers v18@2x.png

THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION

Last year I also discovered THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION. This is the single greatest book on writing fiction I’ve ever read. It’s written by Donald Maass, a fantastic literary agent. I’ve also read 21ST CENTURY FICTION (which is amazing) and several other of his writing books. But THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION takes the cake.

Why?

It teaches you what types of writing, what types of characters, and what types of plot turns have an ACTUAL emotional impact on your readers. Each chapter has a list of questions, and I went through many of them while outlining THE BALANCE BETWEEN, and now I’m going through all of them as I edit.

This book is one of the reasons I wrote THE BALANCE BETWEEN so quickly. It challenges you to reach inside yourself and find that which affects YOU the most. Because if you are passionate about it, then your readers will feel that. They might not agree, but they’ll feel it.

Some examples of questions:

  • Think about your protagonist. What is one good thing your protagonist finds exceptionally hard to do?
  • Work backward to make that virtuous act even more difficult. Later on, perhaps following a catharsis, find a way for your protagonist to do, at last, that good deed.
  • Which character has a justified grudge against another? Build the reasons for it, then enact forgiveness.
  • Identify a higher emotion you’d like your readers to feel: self-control, courage, perseverance, truthfulness, fairness, respect, generosity, forgiveness, service, sacrifice, discernment, integrity, humility, readiness, or wisdom.
  • Choose a character whose nature is, or whom you can make, the opposite of this quality. Who most needs to learn this lesson, see a truth, adopt this virtue, and change?
  • Create three events that both build the necessity of change and necessary reasons to resist it. These events are the anticipation phase.
  • Finally, create the event that will bring home to your character the better way of being. How can this character show us her better self? This is the moment when you will stir higher emotion in your readers.

STARKEST CONTRAST=EMOTIONAL IMPACT 

To oversimplify, much of his book has to do with making the contrasts starker. Instead of someone’s arc being: “protagonist doesn’t think much at all about others” to “helps somebody once”. Make it so that she is EXTREMELY selfish, and the end state is like SACRIFICES herself. Take the elements of your story and PULL them to the extremes. One character forgives another? Make it both HARDER to forgive, and MORE IMPORTANT that they do forgive. The more impossible/more important you make something seem, the more emotionally powerful it will be when it finally happens.

His other book, 21ST CENTURY FICTION, tells you to do this:

  • What disturbs you the most? Angers you? What do you hate most in this world? What makes you so sad or angry you can hardly handle it, let alone talk about it?
  • What excites you? Makes you overjoyed? What experiences in this life make you the happiest? What do you love more than anything in the world?
  • Now, WRITE ABOUT THOSE THINGS. Yes, even the things that disturb you most. Because THOSE THINGS will have the greatest emotional impact on you as a writer, and that will transfer to your readers.

So, THE BALANCE BETWEEN has those things. The deaths of loved ones and innocents. The struggles of addiction. Feelings of abandonment from family. The feeling of failing everyone you love. But it also has redemption, recovery, forgiveness, the promise that all the suffering in this life will pale in comparison to the healing in the life to come.

PLANS FOR 2018

This year, I’ve been attending MANY Utah writing conferences, learning more, making contacts. Today I’m going to meet with some Epic Fantasy writers I met at a conference to try to make a writer’s group. I’ve been submitting a LOT more. I’m going through the BALANCE BETWEEN and revise with the Emotional Craft chapter questions. I plan on making a few edits to the endings of ROBBING GODS and TWO MASTERS. It feels great to be alive.

I’m working on my pitches and all of my submission materials. I’ve got to learn to be able to pitch on a dime, in person. Be excited! Those are my big emphasis’s this year. I hope it works out!

I’ve also gotten MUCH more involved on Twitter, not necessarily to get more followers, but really just to be more involved. One of the most important things I learned was at LTUE when one panelist said “You have to get 20k Twitter followers and network up the wazoo before publishers will even look at you!” and Myke Cole said he disagreed, he said “I spent a lot of time to network through SFFWA, made a great connection with an editor, and the first few books I sent him he said were terrible. My friend, who had been writing novels this whole time, honing his craft, got his book accepted by this same editor when I introduced them. The most important thing is to hone your craft. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.” (Not an exact quote, but you get the gist). I told him afterward I appreciated his comment. I even read one of his books! (He has like, 6-7 published works now). Will be writing a review on that too.

PLANS FOR 2019?

I’ve paid for Superstars Writing Seminars, in Colorado. Which will happen February 2019. High profile writers, agents, and editors will be teaching classes. And it ain’t a cheap conference (650$, even with a referral discount!), but it’s time I took my writing career to the next level. I’ve written 7 novels, it’s about time I start pitching and networking more. Donald Maass will even be there! I hope for the chance to pitch to him in person! He reps Brent Weeks, one of my favorite authors.

THAT’S ALL FOLKS

Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep honing your craft. Keep submitting.

Booyah!

-Thomas Fawkes

Writing Conferences 2018, 2019

Hey all!

As an update to all of my writing friends about conferences I’m attending:

LUW Spring Conference (35$, Apr 14)
https://www.eventbrite.com/…/2018-spring-conference

Fyrecon (40$ Jun 21-23)
https://www.fyrecon.com

UVU Book Academy 2018 (95$, Sep 18)
https://www.uvu.edu/conferences/book-academy/program.html

Local Authors and You (Free! Nov 3-4)
http://www.viridiancenter.org/ev…/authors_LocalAuthorsAndYou

NEXT YEART
Superstars Writing Seminars (Many $$’s, I have a 100$ off discount code, Colorado, Feb 7-9 2019)
http://superstarswriting.com/

LTUE (45$ ending mar 30, Feb 14-19)
www.ltue.net
(Will miss part of this one, Valentine’s day people!)

Storymakers (I think registration opens in Jan 2019)
http://ldstorymakersconference.com/

Westercon (60$ ending mar 30, Jul 4-7)
www.westercon72.org
(I will definitely be missing parts of this one too, 4th of July guys! Why do conferences do this?)

Anyway, there ya go!

Hope to see you at some of them!

Booyah,

 

-Thomas

Just keep learning the craft

The third in my just keep series is in some ways an extension of “just keep reading” because part of “just keep learning the craft” is “just keep reading about writing” (lots of grammar, editing, and how-to books). It also involves experimentation and getting feedback.

This step is how you transition from just a writer to a writer that keeps getting better. This separates the on-their-ways from the wannabes. 

The easiest part of this is to incorporate a steady diet of “how to write” content. You don’t want to inhale it, and you don’t have to accept everything you read as gospel, but as you read about writing your brain will start to fill with good techniques and you will think more critically about your writing.

I’ve read a LOT of how-to content. A few writers and how-to’s that are great to start with are:

That doesn’t even scratch the surface (my gosh I’ve read so many!). You definitely want to learn the tense and point of view  (POV) you’ve picked to write in (if “third-person limited past” doesn’t make sense to you, you better get reading). The point is not to read 100 how to write books and/or make a checklist of things you must read/learn before you can write, the point is to develop a consist habit of learning the craft. Be journey minded, not destination minded (that advice is useful everywhere).

One other great thing is that I reach a point when I’m sick of reading about writing and I scramble to my computer to get out my own words. It builds up until I can’t wait any longer. Others might not get this effect, but I do.

On degrees and classes… I say beware spending money on something that you could get for free. You can learn online for free. And practice is more important than study and that’s free too. Practice is one of the greatest tools to learning, and you can’t throw money at writing and expect to get good without practice. And much that you could learn in college about writing you could learn online.

Degrees are great for creating an external force to make you write, but sheesh that’s some expensive motivation! Maybe you could just work on building a good habit, or join a writing group where you have to turn something in weekly (writing groups are great for this, and I’ll do a post on those soon).

My college experience was not the greatest. Much of what I learned I could have taught myself (I have an English degree). I had one class on grammar that was absolutely revolutionary, but apart from that, yuck.

The most important thing to get from this post is this: consistently read how-to content, experiment with new things often, and read your fiction with a critical eye. Over years, you will find the principles and methods which help you to be a greater writer.

Go forth and have no fear!

Booyah.

How to keep working when you feel burned out

I have a theory that there are (at least) 2 types of work. This theory has been stewing in my head for a few months, and I’ve recently tried putting it into effect. I think it works for me!

The first type is more commonly known and understood. I’ll call it exhale work. It’s when you put forth outward work, expelling energy and effort out from within yourself to some external thing. Hammering in a nail, speaking on a phone call, or typing up a report are all forms of this exhale work.

But often I’ll have times where I have a super productive 4 hours and get a lot done, but dang I need a break! Even after a 15 minute break or a 30 minute lunch, my brain is still sore.

So what do I do? I can’t just take the rest of the day off. That next report is due soon! It’s like I’ve just let out a very long breath and now I need to breath in!

The same can happen with creative work. You can only output so much before you need more input. And you can only breath in (read or watch shows) so much before you have to breath out again (write/create).

That creative analogy holds the key. I can’t have my output be writing fiction and my input is eating a sandwich (that had a very different output). Therefore I can’t expect to output research reports if my input is a YouTube video.

Now legitimate breaks have their time and place (hey man, I didn’t say the breathing metaphor was perfect). Sometimes you need to be not working at all (that’s why it’s the law to have two 15 minute breaks and one  30 minute lunch in a standard 8 hour work day), but I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about eating calories before you output physical effort. I’m talking about reading the minutes before planning the next meeting, I’m talking about casually reviewing your boss’s comments on your report before revising it.

I’m talking about inputting the raw data into myself, in a calm and stress-free fashion, with no thought of output but only thought of input. 

It’s the type of work that keeps you at the station, it uses less energy as you’re trying to recover, and it helps you keep your momentum, like jogging or walking for a few minutes when you are out on a long run.

You have to know the difference between inhale work, exhale work, a break, and a false progress activity.

The other day I thought I was doing a type of inhale work but was really doing a false progress activity. I was working on one report and didn’t want to use my brain, so I decided to just make tons of charts to “get started.” It took me hours. It turns out that when I make a conscious and strategic decision of how to present all of the data (what to not include at all, what to mention in a simple sentence, and what to put in a chart) that the work is harder mentally, but much shorter. I make real progress on outputting the report.

I have to make sure that my working breaks are motivated by exhaustion rather than laziness. When I try to be lazy, I waste time making fifty charts when I only needed ten. And if I needed some inhale work? I should have just read the unfiltered data and wrote the report later.

So, when you’ve been outputting a lot and you feel like you need to breath, the breath. Find what the intake when is for that task, and do it. If you need a break, take it. Trying to output all the time will kill you. You’ve got to breath in.

Now for me, and I am writing this at 11:16 at night, which is late for a dad. And I need a break break before I can exhale any more life.

Booyah!

Just keep reading

Although this is the second entry in my “just keep… “ series, this may be the first rule you should keep and the first rule you have probably kept.

(There are people who don’t read much who decide to write novels, maybe because they love TV or video games, but if you don’t have a passion to consume the art form you’re trying to create, I don’t think you’ll be very good.)

One of the most important reasons to just keep reading is to learn through osmosis. Passive consumption works as a form of unconscious learning. You begin to absorb the rhythms of story and prose from the writers that you read. Things begin to get embedded into your instincts and intuition that will come out in your writing. (One reason it’s important to read good fiction.)

You can also do what I call “active reading.” This is when you read fiction with a more critical eye, focusing to recognize the patterns on the page, sitting and analyzing a phrase that had a particularly strong effect on you and to trying to understand why it had that effect. If you come to learn why and how, you will then be able to use those tools and components in your own storytelling.

I find that it is very helpful to look back at a story that I’ve read and analyze it. What made me care? What made me feel? How did the writer achieve  getting me through that emotional journey? What worked for me? What didn’t? And, perhaps most importantly, what almost or only partially worked and why or why didn’t it?

As I ponder these things (and write them down), I am more and more able to use the things I’ve learned from my reading in my own writing. I let the fiction I read fill me until I just burst.

I won’t give you a random number of books a year or pages or hours a day, just that you should do it consistently.

Go forth and fill your mind with awesomeness!

Booyah.

Why “just keep writing” is the best writing advice ever

The most common writing advice I’ve heard is to “just keep writing.” When I was very new to writing I thought that such advice told me nothing. I had a million questions about writing, so why was that what I heard the most? Just keep trying? Just keep writing?

The key is that practice makes… better. The more you attempt a certain goal, the more able you become at achieving it. Each time you fail and try again, you get better. It took me years of trying and failing to build enough self control to get to the point where I was writing every single day. Not writing well, just writing at all. I wasn’t ready for more answers before then.

The natural man doesn’t have the drive to “just keep writing,” he looks for every excuse not to write. Every failure is actually a success, for each time you fail at writing consistently, you had also tried again. So keep trying, keep failing, and watch the failures become more and more spaced out. The days where I didn’t have the drive to write became further and further apart (habit tracking apps are great for helping with this).

5 years ago I would  have never dreamed that I’d be willing to wake at 5:00 AM every single day (including weekends) to write for 2 hours to meet my writing goal.

It’s what transitions you from someone who wants to write to a real writer. Wannabes talk or complain about writing. Real writers, well, they actually write. Once you have mastered the principle of “just keep writing” and you have a consistent writing habit, then you will start to discover your own answers to your other writing questions.

The next piece of advice I would offer is to “Just keep studying the craft.” you don’t have to wait ’til you master  “just keep writing” to start working on this skill, but “just keep writing” is more important. I’ll talk about studying craft in a future blog post.

So, here is you first and most important piece of advice:

Just keep writing!

What that really means is “if you fail, try again. This rule does not change.  No matter the number of failures.”

Booyah!