Cough! Aurgh! Splat!

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

November 13, 2010 -- 1:57 a.m.

I was going to write a review of Percy Jackson and compare it to Harry Potter today but I ended up sick with the flu, and sitting up makes me feel like vomiting. Hardly a situation conductive to cogent thought. I could barely even watch my beloved figure skaters do their pretty lutzs at Skate America. Oh, Daisuke Takahashi, your babies would look so refulgent in the verdure of my viviparous womb!

(See, I'm practicing, right? No, not avoiding studying for the GRE. No, not me).

I blame my sickness on trying to multiply decimals without a calculator--a feat I have not performed since junior high school but which is apparently centripetal to my future education. The GRE people prove they are not entirely bilious idiots by planning to allow calculators in the revised version of the test...which kicks off in August, long after the grad school deadlines have passed, alas for moi.

As always, the math story problems are slaughtering me. They have been my nemesis for about two decades, keeping me out of that coveted 95th percentile. The fact I haven't taken a math class in 5 years hasn't helped, either, but I swear to all that I apotheosize, I will conquer all things quantitative!

The blogo-writing world has semi-exploded in response to an (intentionally?) inflammatory article at which calls NaNoWriMo a waste of time and energy, basically pointing out that there are too many writers feeding the vanity presses anyway and we shouldn't be celebrating/promoting the production of junk. Carolyn Kellogg does a good job in refuting the analysis in her article at the LA Times' book blog, using skills that I will hopefully be able to imitate on my GRE argumentative writing sample. (You'd think I wouldn't sweat the writing samples, but I suppose one of the symptoms of my flu is advanced paranoia.) Other writers (like John Scalzi) have also condemned the article, rightly.

It's true that the original article sets up a foolish false dichotomy between reading and writing, but I will say that in certain sectors of the epic fantasy community, there are far more people who want to write 300,000-word books than people willing to plunk down the cash for 300,000-word hardcovers (outside of big names like GGRM). I suspect the proportion of wannabe writers to books published by the mainstream presses is higher in this genre than anywhere else, exception maybe romance. This is part of the reason the book I'm working on now is YA, where the market seems to have much more room for new writers. Being the internet, if anyone actually read this blog, I'm sure they'd take what I'm saying in a pejorative way, but allow me to exculpate myself: everyone should write epic fantasy if they want to. The merit of your ideas and your growth as a writer/human being has nothing to do with whether or not you are published, and it is quite possible that you will be. I love epic fantasy and read it and buy it when I can afford it. I am not saying don't write your epic fantasy, or that your epic fantasy isn't worth publishing.

In fact, I'm not entirely sure what I am saying, it's probably the flu talking, but the one thing in the Salon article I agree with is that it's a cool idea to pick a month and say, "let's read ten books this month." Not in competition with NaNoWriMo, but in conjuction with it, maybe in September? It would be especially salubrious for wannabe writers, who need to know the market they're entering into. And there's nothing better than closely analyzing other books to learn how to write. The basic tenets of grammar, plot, and character are all available for you to cadge from careful analysis of these texts. You don't have to memorize techniques out of context from some kind of writer's dictionary--as I am somewhat forced to do by the GREs--you have a nonpareil toolbox at your hand, one of almost infinite variety, weighing down the doughty shelves of your local library.

And I do think it's a tool that goes underused, because people tend to find their favorite authors and genres and keep to that niche for decades. Epic fantasy writers have stuff to learn from people like Robert Graves and Isabelle Allende, as well as stuff to learn from Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan.

So I would propose having a "Writers Read" book month (NaNoReMore?) where authors are required to read several books, some outside their favorite genres. And it can be like those things we had in elementary school, where if you turn in your book calendar all filled in, you can get a free pizza. Though I won't be paying for it, of course.

What am I writing for NaNoWriMo? I am not participating in it this year, unfortunately. I have far too much studying to do. (Sigh).

EDIT: No surprise, someone else has already come up with the NaNoReaMo idea.

On Style, and the GRE

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

November 10, 2010 -- 9:57 p.m.

Blaarg. I've started studying for the GRE and man, it is rough. This is the first time I've ever studied for a standardized test. I usually score in the 89-93 percentile without trying, but it's been awhile since school and so I've decided to actually buckle down and try to do well. Plus, my college GPA is B+ territory, because I'm a lazy student (I learn, I just don't care enough to go to the trouble of proving to teachers that I've learned), so I could use a little boost when it comes to applying to grad school and internships.

Anyway, I thought the vocab part would be easy but I've been going through an old Kaplan study guide and discovering there are tons of words I am apparently expected to know but don't. Granted, I know most of them, but still, I wonder, why? What's the purpose of having a vocabulary so complex no one will understand you? I've never heard anyone use the word 'prolix' in my life. Or 'cavil.' Or 'orotund.' These are apparently important words, though, because my entire future might be hanging on them.

My journalism teachers taught as to write everything we could targeted at about a fourth-grade reading level. Lowest common denomination. All of my teachers acted as if it was a tragedy that we had to talk down to people, but as I advanced in my career I realized that there was a good reason for that. The ideas are more important than the words we use to tell them, and the ideas we present should be as clear to as many people as possible. That's one of the reasons I'm not so anti-cliche as many writers. If someone writes, "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," we all know what that means, right? It conveys the idea. Cliches are about the only time you can be sure that the reader and the author are sharing the exact same picture in their mind. Although, of course a clever writer would change the cliche so it still communicates the same meaning, but with a hint of world-building and humor. IE, "People who live in glass bungalows shouldn't throw lead-plated ostriches." Or something. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett are masters of this.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is a high vocabulary is not an end-goal in and of itself. I think it's only useful in as far as it's...well, useful. Always go for clear communication of a new idea, instead of trying to use words that make you sound intelligent. If a reader stops and pulls out a dictionary, that's a bad sign.

Then again, I love reading Orson Scott Card because he uses big words like "corpuscular." And that's a cool word worth knowing. Some other good words I've discovered through the GRE learning process--jocose , turgid, peregrination, philogyny, mordant, moribund, volant and mendacious.

I also learned I've been using the word 'querulous' wrong all my life. I always thought it was a synonym for tremulous. Whoops. Hope that word isn't in any of the drafts I sent agents...


Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

November 8, 2010 -- 8:23 p.m.

Random book titles sometimes come to me. I have no clue what they're about, but I'd love to read them. Today, I'd love to see: I Got Lost on my Way to a Vasectomy (And Now I Can't Find my Pants.)

Vasectomy is just such a great word. Unlike many of the words on the study guide for the G.R.E., which are just well, annoying.

WoT pumpkins, a good query

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

November 8, 2010 -- 2:50 p.m.

Love these Wheel of Time pumpkins by LynnKitty (from Brandon Sanderson's Tweet page). Very well carved!

In other news, it's NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I'm not participating because I'm in the middle of the book which is the trickiest part so I don't mind if it goes a little slowly. But maybe I will next year.

There was a bit of a comment flurry on Evil Editor's page about writing query letters before your work is done. Personally, I always write my query before I'm done, sometimes before I start writing the book. It's a way of giving myself direction and nailing down the book's selling points/voice.

NOTE: I didn't say I sent the queries before I finished writing. I just have one for personal reference so every time I get yanked off on a subplot that doesn't matter, I can go back to the query and say, okay, am I taking away from these promises I've made in the query? Or does this entertaining tangent add and make the story better?

While query letter writing comes naturally to me--it involves the same skills I learned in journalism school--hook, summarize, explore consequences. In newspaper writing, we have a thing called "inverted pyramid" which means you have to pick the most important/interesting issue in whatever you're exploring and put that first, then sort all the other facts out also based on their importance/interest, with the goal being to NOT let the reader stop reading until they reach the end of the article (the least interesting part). But I think most people don't have that summarizing/sorting training, so that's why they have a hard time figuring out how to write a good query letter. Wow, I used far too many /'s in that paragraph.

Anyway, the best example I think I've ever seen of turning a bad query into a stunningly good query is HERE. The transformation is incredible--one of these books sounds boring, and one of them I would yank off the shelf in a heartbeat. And she points out exactly what she did wrong at first--create a laundry list of plot points, without making them interesting to us. Most authors tell you that interest comes from conflict, which is true, but it also comes from caring about a character. As far as I've been able to see, most bad queries fall into two categories: Too much information about a character's background, and not enough about what they're doing, and too much information about plot, and nothing about why it should matter to us. I'm not going to link to examples of horrible queries because they might end up as big name authors and ridicule me one day, but I think if you go to Evil Editor's site, or read through the listings at Query Shark, you'll quickly see what I mean.

I had a dream three nights ago that I needed to make a change to my query for my fantasy novel. That it was crucial for me to add a third paragraph containing more plot information. And I knew exactly how to word it and everything. Unfortunately, when I woke up, I forgot everything. Since my query rate is 25% positive responses, I'm not sure if I should mess with a winning formula or not, but my subconscious insists on it, so perhaps I'll pull it out and look at it again.

Anyway, I'm not going to have a writing prompt, but you might want to try writing a query for your current project and see if it doesn't give you a clearer picture of your work. Plus, then you can sit on it for awhile and perfect it, while you're perfecting your manuscript. My query for Skin Farm was pretty stinky at first, but now I like it...even if it's probably too short on details. Because I'm definitely trying not to fall into the third query trap I didn't mention: Too much world background--a disease that strikes almost every fantasy writer at some time in their lives. Pity these poor creatures, for they know not the boredom they cause.

Towers of Midnight

Posted by Unrepentant Escapist

November 3, 1:38 p.m.

So much to blog about, so little time! I'll fill in gaps another day. I have notes from Scott Westerfeld's lecture at the Provo Teen Bookfest, a cartoon appearance by Neil Gaiman, and other goodies like that to comment on. I also had a first date with a guy that I enjoyed a lot, but I guess he didn't have fun since he hasn't called. I wonder, sometimes, how people can perceive things so completely differently? I wish my radar in this area was more well-attuned.

But I don't feel like writing about any of that now because I just finished a) revising a novel b) reading Towers of Midnight (I got number #60 and went to the release party dressed as Moiraine). So now I've got a headache, but I have to respond to the book before I can sleep.

Spoilers below, but I can say non-spoilery that I liked Towers of Midnight better than The Gathering Storm. Brandon Sanderson seemed to hit the characters better and the style is less jarring. Sure, there's sometimes a strange choice of words, especially when it comes to adjectives, that jerks me out of the book, but I think he has a better handle on all the characters, especially Mat--though he's still a bit clownish. Sanderson continues to do the best job humanly possible, and I can't think of any author that could have done better at capturing the world and the style.

Reading it also struck me with a sense of sadness. As I took the book and flipped through the pages, just catching hints of story here and there, I realized I could only do that for one more book--see sentences out of context and have no clue what they meant. For only one more book, I'll be able to read and speculate without knowing what happens. Then, all that's gone.

Sanderson mentioned at the signing that Harriet is thinking about putting out a more complete WoT encyclopedia after Memory of Light comes out. My response to that is kind of--what's the point? I enjoy reading the glossary because I'm hoping to get secret clues and hints about what happens next. After the WoT ends, I'll stop caring about these people ever again. I'll never get into an argument about who killed Asmodean again--something which Sanderson said was answered in this book. It must have been in the part I read when I was doped up on pain meds, holding my eyes open with my thumbs and trying to read. Or very subtle. I guess I'll find out the answer on the forums.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is it's like the finale of Lost. Or of Harry Potter. How many times did I read the series before the final book came out? Four or five times. And how many times have I read it since? NONE. Because the anticipation was half the fun.

And when Memory of Light comes out, it'll all be over. And it's not like I don't want it to end, and I think Sanderson will give us a more satisfying conclusion than either of those series', but it will still darken my life a little.

Anyway, onto the details.


I never realized how much I loved old angsty Rand until he was gone. I followed a sad, lonely shepherd boy who had to fight against the world and his own personal problems for fifteen years, and suddenly the angst is gone and deus ex machina, he can spot darkfriends with a glance and turn mold into bread. From a writerly perspective, this is an example of why characters need flaws. I loved the old Rand, and now I don't really care about him. It's kind of weird. And it's nothing I'm blaming on the authors--narratively, I can understand why it had to happen--but still, it's a bit like losing an old friend. We'll see if Mr. Perfect grows on me. This book wasn't really about Rand, so I can understand why it didn't offer him much in the way of a character arc, but it still feels too easy. I look forward to the challenges that will test him in the final book.

The Verin letter thing is stupid. She didn't give redundant information to someone else? Why? Why? Why? That's just dumb and unbelievable. If that was in Robert's Jordan outline, it should have been chucked out. Really. Also, some of the political manuevering in the book struck me as subpar. None of the Aes Sedai remembered that Rand was a monarch? I know it's hard to create characters that outsmart me, but these are supposed to be women who live hundreds of years, and who have been forced to practice craftiness by finding ways to get around their oaths. The Aes Sedai are masters of politics! COME ON! This was the same thing I struggled with when it came to Verin's black ajah oath, that the wording was so transparently, obviously easy to break with suicide, I decided that this must be intentional on the Black Ajah's part, so they could torture members to death for their information. But every time I see the Aes Sedai three steps behind the reader, it breaks the wall of disbelief a little. I also have a hard time buying the fact that Elayne can bribe three Cairhein nobles and the throne is hers, but that's really a plotline I'd like over with, so I'll give that one a pass.

Perrin's character arc was exceptionally well-done, although I was minorly frustrated by the chronological displacement. (Tam is in two places at once! And then he disappears for the rest of the book! Say hello, Tam! Good-bye, Tam!) I'll wave that off as a necessary evil. The writing in the Perrin arc also felt the closest to Jordan's own--I suspect a lot of it may have been Jordan's, but I don't know.

Sanderson also hit Moiraine's voice spot-on, I thought. Preachy but lovable. I'm SO glad to have her back. The eye-losing Mat scene is also pitch-perfect.

I hope Farstrider's background is a little more explored. Maybe the rest of the fandom unraveled this already, but the only thing I remember about it was Ishamael's whispers back one, was it? Anyway, it's fuzzy. And Luc. Seriously, why was he so evil again? Tigraine deserved better.

What's up with the Black Tower? My theory--we've just found out what happens when you distill a channeller through 13 Myrdraal and 13 Black Ajah. Welcome to Stepford Tower.

I totally called Danelle being Mesaana. Go me.

I'm glad Graendal survived to get a better punishment. She was my favorite Forsaken. I always figured she'd be the last one standing, and would crawl away from the last battle and reinvent herself as an evil farmwife. Or something. Possibly, I thought she might end up on Rand's side at the end as "redeemed" (ie, saw that Ishamael was cray-cray and switched sides), but I'm glad she didn't. And pitting the Whitecloaks and Perrin against each other was just her style. How many forsaken are left out now?

Oh, I read on the forums that Sanderson put the murderer of Asmodean in the Glossary. SHAME! I CALL SHENANIGANS!!!

Well, whatever. It was still a good book.