Archive | December 2009

True Blood Season 1 vs. Dead until Dark

A few posts ago I promised a comparison of the first series of True Blood and the first novel of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series, Dead until Dark. The UK airing of True Blood has now finished and I thought I’d better get on with it before I forgot entirely.

The purpose of the comparison is, as with any of my reviews, to look at the elements of writing and how they were handled differently in each case. It is not to make a value judgement about the content. Disclaimer over, let’s do it.

It’s interesting to compare a single short novel with a TV series of 12 episodes. There is a lot more space for character development of minor characters and world building. Plus, the first tv series benefitted from several of the books in the series already being written. If anyone has read the later books, perhaps they can comment on whether developments in the novels were taken advantage of?

POV. Dead until Dark is written in first person, from the point of view of Sookie Stackhouse. True Blood has other povs. In this case I think it is good to have some insight into Bill’s story – what’s happening to him away from Sookie. This wasn’t covered in the novel and while that didn’t detract from the novel, it definitely added to the series. However, it appears that Bill didn’t become a vampire official (I want to say sheriff, but I’m not sure that’s right) in True Blood.

The additional pov characters also helped deliver deeper, more solid characters for True Blood. This is particularly true for Jason Stackhouse who is really quite flimsy in the book. His relationship to his sister seems to be kept the same but because we can see what’s going on in his life that Sookie is not party to, he becomes a more sympathetic character.

There are several additional and enhanced characters in the TV series. Tara, who is my favourite, is completely absent from the book. (I don’t know whether she appears in later books??) Lafayette, who I also like very much, is barely mentioned in the book and gets a fully developed role in the series. This is very much an improvement and gives the series a vehicle to explore social themes notably absent from the novel. Note to self: this highlights the limitations of first person pov in certain types of story. Also, I really hope that’s not Lafayette’s body in the back of Andy Bellefleur’s car at the end of True Blood.

Sadly, my hopes that the reveal of the killer would be more effectively foreshadowed in True Blood have been dashed. Episode 11 has a couple of clues and there was one clue a little earlier on, so it’s not come totally out of the blue as it did in the book. What I want from a whodunnit is to not be able to guess who the villain is, but to know that I could have worked it out when I’m given the answer. That really didn’t happen in Dead until Dark; Sookie was being chased through the woods and I was all ‘Rene? Really?’ However, the lead up to Rene’s attempt on Sookie’s life was much better handled in the TV series.

I loved that Sookie got the kill. This happened in both the book and the tv series. Throughout both, Sookie is presented as a strong woman who can look after herself. In the last episode of True Blood both Sam and Bill try to come to her rescue and fail epically. Brilliant. Sookie Stackhouse, most unlikely feminist icon.

What the novel did better than the series though, was to put Bill, Jason and Sam much more convincingly in the frame for the murders. There was a point about three-quarters of the way through the book where I was thinking it really could turn out to be Sam. Bill and Jason were both serious contenders up until half way through. In True Blood, there was never any real suggestion that either Bill or Sam could have been the culprit. Andy Bellefleur’s character/role was the only one that was downgraded for the series and I think that was a shame. His probing at Sam in particular never seemed very convincing.

Jason was clearly implicated at the beginning of the series but it never really came to anything. I do think that this was because he got to be a pov character and the trade off for his character development meant that he couldn’t be convincingly implicated. I think it was worth it. Jason is far more entertaining in True Blood.

I feel I should say that I couldn’t put Dead until Dark down. Whatever its many limitations, it was a compelling plot. And a worthwhile read; throughout I found myself thinking about how I would rewrite scenes to release their potential. Good for my development as a writer but there was always a sense of unrealised potential. I’m delighted that it was brought out so well in the tv series.

So, I can’t wait for True Blood Season 2 in 2010 and in the meantime I’ll slake my thirst with a couple more of the books.

Happy anniversary to me

It’s been just over a year since I started writing this blog so I thought it might be appropriate to do a little reflection.

When I started my intentions were several.
1. To have a regular writing practice which would provide some much needed discipline and get me in a writing mood.
2. To create an online presence so that when I finished and sold my novel I would have a platform to start from.
3. To talk about writing. To discuss both the technicalities and the experience of writing and thus stimulate and record my learning.

So, how did it work out?

1. Well, I didn’t make a daily practice out this blog and there have been a few occasions this year when even a weekly post seemed like a stretch goal. It hasn’t really provided me with the discipline that I thought it would and has often been a displacement activity when I could have been writing stories. It has been a nagging reminder that I want to write, that I need to write, and that when life gets in the way there’s always time to spend ten minutes writing.

2. This went a little better. It was a toe dipped in the waters of social media and now I find myself hooked. It’s helped me be a little more open about who I am rather than hiding behind a professional persona and it’s helped me connect all the different parts of me. Now, I have an online presence. It’s smaller than perhaps I originally envisaged but I’m comfortable with it. And, of course, I haven’t actually finished my novel, much less sold it, so there’s still plenty of time.

3. I think this is where writing this blog has really helped. Over the year I’ve used it to record places and things of use to writers, to review the stories I’ve read and talk about the experiences I’ve had related to writing. My posts have been getting longer and more personal and I think that’s because after all this practice I’m finding it easier. It’s given me an opportunity to organise my thoughts about writing, to really explore them, and I feel that I’ve learnt a lot this year.

So, onwards to 2010. My writing goals for this year are to finish my novel, Sacrifice, and to keep posting about my experiences. What about you? What are you working on for 2010?


Should historical fiction be considered speculative fiction?

OK, no, I know. I’m only asking because I want to talk about a novel that isn’t SF, fantasy or horror. The book in question is Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue. It was inspired by a true story about a teenaged servant who murdered her mistress.

First of all, I loved the title. A slammerkin was a type of loose gown popular in the mid to late seventeenth century and also a euphemism for a whore. It’s a fabulous word.

The first part of the book, written in third person and entirely based in the main character’s pov, was gorgeous. It was visceral and colourful and drew me right into a very physical world. The use of language and metaphor was striking. For this alone, this book is worth reading.

Part two felt slightly different. It was less colourful, less passionate. Partly this reflects the changed life circumstances of the protagonist and was well done, if disappointing. I enjoyed the earthiness of part one very much and was sad to return to a greyer world. We are introduced to other povs in part two and while this is necessary for the reader’s understanding of the story, inevitably there’s not enough time to really get inside the character’s heads.

The ending was telegraphed but not obvious. I know this is something I complain about a lot and it was nice to be surprised. Slammerkin starts with a prologue of the protagonist in gaol and then shows the reader how she got there. Somehow I got it into my head that this was a rags to riches tale and the prologue represented a middle low point rather than the end and it was well into the book that I realised this was not to be. Despite that misunderstanding, however, the ending managed to be engaging and shocking without coming as a complete surprise.

Of course, it’s not perfect. Sometimes the pov gets a little confused, swapping between characters mid-scene or even flipping back and forth in the same scene. When the narrator is a character other than the protagonist, the characterisation is a little flimsy. This is compensated for by the characterisation that’s done while we’re in the head of the protagonist, so that in total the characters are quite solid. It’s just that the reader knows them more through the protagonist than through themselves.

This book came to me serendipitously. My neighbour gave it to me and I’m really glad she did. I’ll be reading some more of Emma Donaghue’s novels.

Dead Squirrels

This Show, Don’t Tell post from Drunk Writer Talk is one of the clearest examples of what the ubiquitous writing advice ‘show, don’t tell’ actually means. The penultimate paragraph was so well stated that I’m reproducing it here:

Both women’s reactions really showed me something. Both were equally compassionate. Both felt terrible for the little squirrel. Ellen (who is one of the sweetest, most empathetic people you’d ever want to meet) was devastated and could hardly move. Deb (who is one of the most capable and pragmatic people you’d ever want to meet) was prepared to do what had to be done.

Two people demonstrate the same feeling in different ways that tell you something about their character.

I struggle sometimes with ‘show, don’t tell’. I get the what and why. I can see how a story can suffer from too much telling. What I don’t always get is the how and I think this post has really helped.

Viking: King’s Man

This week I’ve read Viking: King’s Man by Tim Severin and The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge. I only intend to comment at any length on fiction as my comments are primarily my observations about how novels are written and constructed. Having said that, The Secret Life of Trees was wonderful. Trees are brilliant.

Viking: King’s Man is the final part of a trilogy. Books 1 and 2 are Odinn’s Child and Sworn Brother, both of which I read some time ago. First of all it should be noted that anything that has vikings in it is automatically good. Can’t get enough vikings. (Hmm, things that begin with V?)

The Viking trilogy is presented as a memoir written by Thorgils Leifsson at the end of a long and eventful life. It is in the first person and there’s no other pov that is really appropriate for a memoir. This format also allows the author to comment on the events that he’s relating. Severin’s scholarship is evident throughout and at times it reads more like a history text than a novel. If I wasn’t already interested in the subject matter this might have felt quite intrusive.

There’s not much more to say: overall it was an entertaining read, competently written, but didn’t stand out from the crowd.

In other news, I’ve added a link to my Bookwormr profile so you can have a look at my reading list. It’s on the right, just below the fold.

Semi colons

I was reading some discussions on some writing groups on LinkedIn the other day and found one about the use of the semi colon and whether it’s being replaced by the em-dash.

The discussion was sparked by Lionel Shriver’s May 2009 article Dashed Bad Form in Standpoint.

I love a semi colon, even if they are unfashionable. I admit I do frequently use an em-dash in emails but if I’m being honest with myself, it’s because I’m being lazy.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

It’s been a week and a half into the new job and I’ve read two books! Probably could have done better if I’d chosen easier books, but that’s cheating.

This morning, I finished Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, by Kate Wilhelm. This was an interesting read from a style perspective. It was published in 1974 and feels even more dated than that. Partly it’s because the book looks at cloning technology and its physical and psychological effects and much of the thinking has moved on a lot since. That aside, I think the main thing creating the archaic feel was the use of omniscient point of view.

I can’t remember the last time I read something where the narrative was so far removed from an individual character’s POV. The advantage to this is that it keeps a story that unfolds over several generations to a manageable length. The book is relatively short at approx. 75,000 words. It also keeps the focus on the intellectual ideas behind the book – what happens when people only reproduce by cloning – and allows the author to present several sides of the debates.

The downside is that characterisation suffers. The reader never really gets in the head of the characters. On the one hand, the clones are presented to the reader as not quite human and distant POV gets in the way of identifying with them. There are two cloned characters, Molly and Mark, that we do get a bit closer to in the second half of the book and they are presented as being more human. I wonder if this was deliberate in order to emphasise that the clones are not like us. Which might have worked if the fully human characters in the first part of the book were more fully drawn. In the end I think that Molly and Mark are the most developed because they get the most POV time.

In this book I really noticed that the dialogue was used to explore the intellectual concepts of the book rather than as a characterisation tool.

It’s been a long time since I read a sci-fi novel in which the story was so clearly subordinate to the idea. I enjoyed it, but this one’s for the purists.

The second book was Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and it was awesome.

The Steel Remains

Well, it’s been a busy time lately, what with finishing up one job and preparing for the next. One last work-related out of town trip didn’t help either.

Tomorrow I start my new job with all that entails and I’m looking forward to getting back into a routine. As I’ll be commuting, I plan to read lots, which means lots of posts on what I’ve been reading. I hesitate to call them reviews because they are more like musings. Anyway, to get in to the mood, lately I’ve finished:

The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan. I picked this up because I’d heard it compared to Joe Abercrombie’s work (I’m such a fangirl; it’s embarrassing). This I found to be both true and not true. And I found that there were things I liked and things I didn’t.

It was a stand-alone novel in a sea of trilogies and series.

I liked that the protagonist was a marginalised minority in his world and that his experiences reflected the shocking, traumatic reality of someone in that position. I liked that the three main characters were all, in some way, outsiders and that it was done without romanticising their positions. These aren’t glorious, loner heroes nobly serving the community. They are damaged people making limited choices. Just like us.

The book is quite bleak and driven by bitterness and anger. I thought that the characters’ awareness of the consequences of their experiences was realistic. Sometimes they faced what had happened to them in the past and was happening to them now and acknowledged how it shaped them, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they saw themselves clearly and at others they were self-deluding.

I also liked the sex scenes. A couple of days ago, I was sent a news story about the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards and it reminded me that it is apparently difficult to write sex well. Richard Morgan writes sex very well. He whips up an emotional response without losing touch with the earthiness of the act. Brilliant.

As an aside, I wonder if the reason so many great literary names find themselves on the Bad Sex in Fiction Award shortlist is because they’re not that good at writing and sex scenes show up the weaknesses in convoluted, pseudo-intellectual prose. Or perhaps I’m just being snarky. What do you think?

What I didn’t enjoy so much was the rushed ending. At the start of the book we follow three characters who have a shared history and whose lives are being disrupted by similar events. The convention of fantasy fiction is that at some point these three paths will merge. Morgan draws this point out right until the very end. Then, when the three characters come together, the final scenes happen in what seems like a small number of pages. As I was nearing the end of the book and the three hadn’t met I found myself wondering if this was a trilogy after all. While I appreciate that life is often a slow build up to a brief climax leaving you vaguely disappointed, this was perhaps a touch too much realism for the novel.

I felt the exposition was handled in a slightly clumsy way and there were several points where the reader was taken out of the action into interior monologue. This was particularly true at the beginning of the book.

And all the swearing! Don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually mind swearing. I enjoy the full use of a wide vocabulary. It felt a little heavy handed though. Too much spice for the stew.

All in all, I enjoyed it and I’d recommend it. Unless you don’t like brutal, gritty, realistic depictions of life.