Archive | July 2010

30 Days of Buffy Meme – Part 2

Day 7. Least favourite male character. Oz. Just didn’t get him. He didn’t seem to add much to the mix except as Willow’s love interest, and both Kennedy and Tara were more interesting.

Day 8. Favourite friendship. Not sure about this, because it’s not something I paid too much attention to. I think I’m going to go with Buffy and Willow because it’s played out over the most time and explores the way friendship has to adapt when life circumstances change.

Day 9. Favourite romance. Buffy and Spike. Okay, it was dysfunctional and not very romantic, but Buffy was more interesting when she was with Spike. I wished the writers would let her get off her moral high horse and enjoy him.

Day 10. Least favourite season. Season 1. It just doesn’t have the depth the rest of the cycle does. From Season 2 onwards you can see the whole story arc that results in the Season 7 finale, or at least you can if you’ve watched all the Seasons in an epic Buffy marathon, as I have, (several times). I remember not liking Seasons 5 and 6 all that much when they first aired, but when watched as part of a whole I gained a whole new appreciation of them. Season 7 couldn’t have happened without the storylines of Seasons 5 and 6. Season 1 sits outside of that grand arc. Also, it has some really annoying episodes (and one or two good ones).

Day 11. Least favourite romance. Willow and Oz. Didn’t get the chemistry, thought Willow could have done better.

Day 12. Least favourite episode. The Puppet Show.

30 Days of Buffy meme – Part 1

I love Buffy. So I’m going to do this much more quickly than thirty days. Five posts, six days each.

Day 1. Favourite season. Season 2. It’s the season when everything really kicks into gear. Season 1 was essentially a pilot and it’s not until Season 2 that Buffy settles down. Plus, we meet Spike and Drusilla, and Angelus (so much better when he’s bad). It has some of my favourite episodes and is probably the most fun of all the Seasons.

Day 2. Favourite episode. Oh, this is more difficult. I love School Hard and Halloween in Season 2; Bandcandy and Doppelgangland in Season 3; Fear, Itself, Beer Bad and A New Man in Season 4; Same Time, Same Place, Selfless and Showtime from Season 7. How to choose? I think, by a very narrow margin, I choose Showtime.

Day 3. Favourite song used in an episode. Another tricky one! The soundtrack is one of the reasons I love the show. For me, music can make an average film/show great (Pirates of the Caribbean) or be a reason I can’t connect with it (Battlestar Galactica). On balance, my favourite Buffy song is Lucky by Bif Naked from The Harsh Light of Day in Season 4.

Day 4. Favourite female character. Faith. Hands down. Eliza Dushku is very watchable and Faith is a great character. I love her when she’s bad, when she’s hurting and when’s she trying to be better.

Day 5. Least favourite female character. Professor Maggie Walsh. Although Season 4 had some great episodes in it, I didn’t like Adam and the Initiative as the Big Bad and I didn’t like Maggie Walsh.

Day 6. Favourite male character. Spike. Who doesn’t love Spike? Mmm, Spike. Even neutered, he was still fun which is more than can be said for Angel.

Thoughts on reading: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

July’s bookclub book was We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. This is a weird little book about two women who live in seclusion in the family home after one of them has killed the rest of the family.

I liked the style of the book. The language was quite poetic and magical. There was a sense of unreality as we were viewing the world through the point of view of a narrator with, probably, mental illness. The setting was given richness and depth by the lushness of the language. Merricat’s mental and emotional life is vividly realised; the scenes where the villagers express their fear and hate are moving and her desire to be safe is understandable.

What was frustrating was the amount of the story that was kept from the reader. I wanted to know what had happened, why the villagers hated them, why the girl had killed her family. But I’m the sort of person that likes to understand things, to know why, and I think that probably says more about me as a reader. Thinking as a writer, I can see that it is tempting to include everything you know about a story, and what power Jackson gives her novella by witholding so much information.

I’m not sure I enjoyed reading this – it is literary fiction after all – but it was very well written and there’s lots to learn from it.

Thoughts on reading: A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin is book one of A Song of Ice and Fire which features in my top ten favourite books of all time. This is the third time I’ve read it and this time I was able to get past the awe and look at the writing. Well, sometimes. There was still a lot of awe; I love this book and its sequels. I can’t wait for the next one, A Dance of Dragons, and I can’t wait for the HBO series coming next year.

So, getting over the love, what did I notice about the writing? First of all, there’s a lot of backstory in the early chapters. It’s very tightly related to the story of the novel and is actually quite sparing. There’s enough to create the sense of a large world with a rich history, without overwhelming current events. It’s usually done a few sentences at a time to add detail but occasionally, one of the POV characters spends a few pages reminiscing. There are two things that I think makes this amount of backstory work. One, chapters are organised by POV and there are a lot of POV characters. This means that each character can give a bit of backstory relevant to them and that past events can be perceived differently by different people. The reader gets to piece together backstory from several versions of the same event. The second thing is that the backstory stays relevant to the POV character. They only tell the reader what matters to them. Every piece of exposition is doing at least two jobs; it’s adding backstory as well as giving characterisation or world building.

The other thing that Martin does really well is characters. His POV characters are great but one expects that. It’s the little characters, the ones that only appear once or twice, the ones that only have a tiny role. They are invested with as much personality and uniqueness as any of the main characters. There is not one that is a cardboard, cookie-cutter character.

He also has a lot of description in the novel. His locations are vividly realised. Again, this information isn’t dropped on us in one lump. Each character has something to say about where they are which builds up to a detailed, solid setting. The description is put to work to support characterisation and theme. I noticed that I tend to skip over description as a reader, as I want to get to the action, so I tried to slow down and pay attention to the descriptive writing. It’s made me think a lot about how I can improve that in my work-in-progress.

All in all, this is a masterpiece, from one of the greatest fantasy writers there is. I loved it as much the third time round as I did the first time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Book mountain

I’ve just tidied up the books on my to-read bookcase (which overflows on to a second bookcase). I have 229 books to read. At a very generous two books per week that’s going to take me over four years to get through, if I don’t buy another book until it’s done.

This morning I was killing time in Waterstone’s and came out with a long list of books I want to read. There seems to be so much new fantasy out that looks really good, and of course there are the many classics I haven’t read yet. Perhaps I just need to accept that I’m going to be climbing this mountain for a many, many years. Perhaps I should look into additional shelving.

Thoughts on reading: The Bluest Eye

I discovered I could edit on the train so I wasn’t reading for a while. I’ve got as far as I can with editing the current work-in-progress; it now needs more writing and I can’t do that on the train quite so well. That does mean I’m reading again which is no bad thing as active reading leads to better writing.

The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison‘s first novel. I wanted to read it as it deals with the impact of cultural conceptions on beauty on people who don’t, and can’t ever, be beautiful on those narrow terms. And Toni Morrison is an important writer whose work I haven’t before read.

In the introduction to the edition of The Bluest Eye that I had, Morrison talked about what she had tried to achieve and how she felt that she’d failed. She’d tried to tell the story of a person who is smashed by rejection, who had no self from which to speak because she had internalised the dismissal and hate. To do this, she used a variety of voices to relate a number of incidents that build up to a picture of the child that results. Morrison doesn’t feel she succeeded. As I don’t know what she was trying to do, I can’t say, but it seems to me that what she wrote was exceptional.

What I particularly took from this novel was the way in which Morrison manages to convey accent and rhythm of speaking with word choice and sentence structure. She doesn’t rely on dialect spellings to give her characters authentic voices, meaning the reader doesn’t need to work out how things are supposed to sound. She uses words that were contemporary to 1950’s Black America and structures her sentences in ways that mimic the rhythm of this type of speech. She allows the world of the novel to be built up quickly without distracting the reader from the story.

The second learning point for me was around structure. The novel has four sections which correspond to the seasons and in each section a part of the story is told by a number of different characters. It isn’t chronological for the seasons aren’t necessarily in the same year. Each event adds another layer to the story of the life of a child until you see just how brutalised she is, and just how unintentional most of it was.

In her introduction, Morrison says that few people were moved by The Bluest Eye – I certainly was.

I Write Like

I Write Like is an hilarious widget which analyzes your writing and gives you a comparison to a famous author. I tried it a few times and my results were:

  • paragraphs from a business email – H.P. Lovecraft. I may have to think about how I’m writing to my colleagues!
  • paragraphs from the brand new opening scene of my work in progress (which I think is pretty good) – Dan Brown. Mixed feelings about this. On the one hand he sells loads, so yay. On the other, lots of people think he’s not that good, but I haven’t read so can’t comment. On balance, I think I’ll take it as a compliment.
  • paragraphs from the first draft of a fantasy short story I wrote a couple of months ago – James Fenimore Cooper. Well, I loved Last of the Mohicans.

Very amusing. What do you get?

Online Etymology Dictionary

Under the category of things that I love is the Online Etymology Dictionary. It tells you where words come from and when they were first used. With words that have several senses, it lists when the word first acquired each meaning.

I always have in mind that Bernard Cornwell said he tried to only use words that would have been in use in the early 19th century when he was writing the Sharpe novels. Large parts of my work in progress are set in the 18th century and if a word sounds quite modern to me, then I’ll check it.

Besides, I just love words 🙂

The ten books that mean the most to me

Identify ten books that have meant the most to you over your reading lifetime. These are not necessarily great literature or important or best-selling, just the one’s that have stuck in your mind and won’t let go. Mine are (in no particular order):

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
The Misplaced Legion by Harry Turtledove
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
My Sweet Audrina by Virginia Andrews
Jerusalem Fire by R M Meluch
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin (technically this is a series)
The Hammer and the Cross by Harry Harrison
Posession by A S Byatt
Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock

There are others that might have made it on to this list: The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel; The Player of Games by Iain M Banks; The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (another series where it’s hard to say a single book had an impact on me that the others didn’t); A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter; and The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell. They didn’t but it was a hard choice. And there are many, many other books that I’ve loved.

Most of these books (not all) I read when I was a teenager and I have wondered if their hold on me was because I read them at such an emotionally charged time. However I’ve re-read Wuthering Heights and Elric of Melnibone recently, and their power is not rooted in time. It is in the books themselves. I fell in love with them all over again.

This is an exercise from the excellent Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot by J Madison Davis. The point is to see what the plots of these books might have in common and thus discover what kind of plot you might be good at writing. While I go off to do that, what are the books that are most important to you?